Say Goodbye to SAT Subject Tests

College Board (the makers of the SAT, SAT subject tests, AP exams, etc) has announced that the SAT subject tests will be discontinued and there will be no administrations of them in the spring. This will have two significant effects on how students applying to top 50 colleges are evaluated (only roughly the top 50 colleges had still been using SAT subject test scores in admissions).

AP Exam Scores

AP exam scores likely just significantly increased in importance. In my opinion, this is quite unfortunate because AP exam scores are only graded on a scale of 5 and are therefore very imprecise measures. For an illustration of this imprecision, take the example of the following potential four students’ Biology AP exam scores, the percentage they got correct on the Biology AP exam, and then how those students would likely have scored on the more precise Biology SAT subject test.

Student Percent Correct AP Exam Score SAT Subject Test Score
1 99% 5 800
2 81% 5 710
3 80% 4 700
4 61% 4 600

The downside to AP scores (which were designed for college course credit and not admission evaluation) is that Student #1 and #2 look exactly the same to college admissions officers: both received a score of 5 (and the percentage correct is not reported). If the college had SAT subject test scores, it would have had the more precise measures to see that Student #1 was significantly better prepared on the course material. Additionally, Student #2 and #3 look very different: a 5 versus a 4 on the AP exam. But they are basically the same: Student #2 could have gotten just 1 more question correct on the test. With such imprecise scoring, then, colleges have no idea if they’re looking at nearly identical test performance (from Student #2 and #3) or quite different test performance (from Student #1 and #4).

So what’s the effect of no SAT subject tests? Likely more pressure on AP exam scores. With fewer objective data points, colleges will more heavily weight the few objective data points that remain, which significantly increases the importance on students to hit 5’s on their AP exams because colleges will not have the additional data from SAT subject tests to see proficiency in those subjects with more precision. (Our opinion: SAT subject tests were always unnecessary — College Board should just have made and should currently make AP exam scores more precise, maybe out of 100, so that students can demonstrate their hard-work and proficiency in those subjects with more precision and not have to worry that one more question wrong will drop them so precipitously from an AP score of a 5 to a 4.) Additionally, there will be even more pressure to take AP courses: students without AP classes used to be able to partially compensate for a lack of AP classes and exam scores with at least a great Math Level 2 SAT subject test score. Without SAT subject tests, students will need to take the AP classes in order to take the AP exams, which requires students and families to start planning earlier and maintain even better grades to guarantee that they will even be allowed to take the AP classes at their school.


SAT and ACT Scores

As mentioned, with fewer objective data points, the remaining data points become more important. Students with slightly lower SAT or ACT scores could partially compensate for these scores by reporting stellar SAT subject test scores. Without those SAT subject test scores, colleges are left with less to look at, so what remains will be scrutinized more.

Instead of finishing with the SAT in March or the ACT in April and then pivoting to take the SAT subject tests in May and June, most of our students will probably continue taking the SAT and ACT more times to score even slightly higher. This change only amplifies an existing trend: there is more pressure to achieve a better and better score. Although average composite ACT scores have stayed more-or-less the same over the last decade (20.9 in 2010 versus 20.6 in 2020), the distribution of those scores has changed. There are more students scoring a 31 or above, fewer students scoring between a 30 and 19, and more students scoring an 18 or below — so students with top scores are scoring even higher, students with lower scores are scoring even lower, and there are fewer in the middle. Consider just the change in the number of perfect ACT scores over the last decade:

Year Number of Perfect ACT Scores
2020            5,579
2018            3,741
2016            2,235
2014            1,407
2012                781
2010                638

In just the last 10 years, 774% more students are scoring a perfect 36 on the ACT.

Personally, I prefer more objective data points so that there is not so much pressure on the few remaining. But, hopefully in contrast to me, students are less stressed because they have fewer scores to worry about and can instead focus more on the scores that remain. Change is inevitable; what we can control is how we adapt to it.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. It is always our pleasure to serve you and to help empower our students to succeed.


Honorable mention: The College Board is also discontinuing the “optional” SAT essay. I say good-riddance. Two minutes to grade an essay was never enough time to accurately grade it, most colleges were no longer considering SAT and ACT essay scores, and I am glad that students will now have a significantly shorter SAT (50 minutes shorter– and more if you include the break beforehand). Hopefully the ACT will follow suit and discontinue their optional essay as well.


Works Cited:




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