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Are the SAT Subject Tests on the Way Out?

For the last decade we have witnessed a transition in the world of college admissions as the SAT Subject Tests, formerly the SAT IIs, and before that that SAT Achievement Tests, have decreased in popularity and have shifted from being required by colleges to being recommended, encouraged, welcomed or considered.

With declining numbers, it is natural to question what is to become of the SAT Subject Tests? Are they nearing the end of their 80-year run? Will they be gone in one fell swoop, slowly fade into obscurity, or be revitalized and resurrected by the College Board? The College Board is weighing its options carefully, examining the colleges who still derive value from these assessments, considering several courses of action.

It is no secret that the SAT Subject Tests have been on a path of decline. Both the total number of tests administered and total number of students taking these tests have declined.

Year Tests Students
2000 768,500 242,084
2004 836,084 266,454
2005 840,683 275,668
2008 752,854 291,896
2010 779,058  296,411
2011 813,803  312,228
2012 675,208 265,096
2014 626,205 248,089
2016 593,544 237,576
2018 552,920* 221,316*

*2018 calculated estimates from limited CB data

The number of SAT Subject Tests administered peaked in 2005 as this was the last year before the College Board integrated the SAT II Writing test into the SAT. After this integration, most colleges shifted from requiring three SAT Subjects to requiring two, as SAT Writing was now part and parcel of the SAT. The number of students taking the SAT Subject Tests peaked in 2011 as this was the final year the University of California required the SAT Subject Tests for admissions from its then pool of 160,000 applicants. The number of students taking SAT Subject Tests fell sharply following this change.

Since 2011, more colleges have dropped the SAT Subject Test requirement. The majority of colleges who previously required the SAT Subject Tests have now shifted to a policy of encouraged, recommended, welcomed, or considered. Having made the shift from “required” to one of these other levels, most colleges have remained stable in their approach to the Subject Tests.

Currently, only 3 institutions require the SAT Subject Tests of all of its applicants: MIT, Cal Tech, and Harvey Mudd. 

School Policy
Cal Tech Math Level 2 and either Biology, Chemistry, or Physics
Harvey Mudd Math Level 2 and any other subject the student chooses.
MIT Requires one Math and one Science Subject Test

 

McGill requires the Subject Tests for students applying with the SAT, but not with the ACT. The following schools require the Subject Tests for particular applicants.

School Policy
Cooper Union All Engineering applicants must submit two SAT Subject Test scores. One must be in Math (Level 1 or 2) and the other must be in either Physics or Chemistry. 
Boston University Required for combined BS+MD and BS+DDS applicants: Chemistry and Math 2
Cornell Arts and Sciences: Two subjects of your choice. Engineering: Mathematics (any level) and a science of your choice.
Stevens Accelerated pre-med program: Math Level I or II and Biology or Chemistry
Union Leadership in Medicine applicants: a math and a science
George Washington BA/MD Program applicants: a math and a science
Northwestern Honors Program in Medical Education (Chemistry and Math Level 2), the Integrated Science Program (Chemistry, Physics and Math Level 2) and applicants who have been home-schooled: Math Level 1 or 2, plus two other SAT Subject Tests of the applicant’s choice from different areas (i.e., not two science or two foreign language or two history, etc.)

 

Four of the schools on this list only require the Subject Tests for the joint Bachelors/pre-med programs.

Some twenty schools recommend, encourage or welcome Subject Tests for some or all students.

Boston College Georgetown Carnegie Mellon U. California
Brown Johns Hopkins Swarthmore Duke
Dartmouth Lafayette UPenn Harvard
Davidson Lehigh Yale Rice
Emory Princeton Webb Delaware

 

Many of the colleges that recommend them or strongly recommend them do so for their STEM and particularly their engineering applicants. Most want a math, frequently Math 2, and a science,

Some 25+ selective colleges will consider them, including:

Amherst Chicago Macalester Reed North Carolina
Babson Cl. McKenna Notre Dame Smith Union
Barnard Columbia Oberlin Stanford Virginia
Bowdoin Connecticut Occidental Michigan Vanderbilt
Bucknell Kenyon Pomona Georgia Vassar

 

The College Board lists 338 colleges who use the SAT Subject Tests. Some Schools like USC and Northwestern require them of homeschooled students.

When you read through the requirements or recommendations for SAT Subject Tests it becomes clear that their principal value is for STEM applicants. And STEM tests are principally what students are taking:

Test

Tests given 2015 Avg. Tests given 2016-2018 Change 2015-2018

Cum. Total all tests

Math Level 2 144,772 142,588 -1.5% 25.7%
Chemistry 73,551 69,529 -5.5% 38.2%
U.S. History 70,298 59,419 -15.5% 48.9%
Math Level 1 65,319 54,332 -16.8% 58.7%
Physics 58,921 56,650 -3.9% 68.9%
Literature 56,594 50,120 -11.4% 77.9%
Biology (Molecular) 42,253 38,874 -8.0% 84.9%
Biology (Ecological) 31,027 30,622 -1.3% 90.4%
Spanish   19,302 17,269 -10.5% 93.5%
World History 16,657 14,554 -12.6% 96.2%
French   7,587 6,241 -17.7% 97.3%
Chinese (Listening) 5,204 4,391 -15.6% 98.1%
Spanish (Listening) 2,982 2,312 -22.5% 98.5%
Latin 2,790 2,362 -15.3% 98.9%
Korean (Listening) 2,110 1,788 -15.3% 99.2%
French (Listening) 1,621 1,273 -21.5% 99.5%
Japanese (Listening) 1,332 1,145 -14.0% 99.7%
German   706 625 -11.5% 99.8%
Italian 492 465 -5.5% 99.9%
German (Listening) 438 432 -1.4% 99.9%
Hebrew 330 327 -0.9% 100.0%
Total 604,286 555,318 8.1%

 

The five key STEM tests (Math 2, Chem, Physics, Bio (M), Bio (E)) have been holding fairly steady, declining a mere 3.5% (350,524 to 338,263) from 2015 to present.  By comparison, the other subject areas have declined a collective 14.5% (253,762 to 217,055). Math 2 is quickly replacing Math 1. Math 2 is the most valuable of all the Subject Tests and accounts for 25.7% of all SAT Subject Tests administered. Math 2 covers math up to precalculus, which is very important for aspiring engineers and STEM students. 

At a recent educational conference the Director of Admissions of Harvey Mudd, Peter Osgood, spoke to the incredible value that Math 2 provides. Institutional research at Harvey Mudd reveals that Math 2 is the single best assessment to determine which students will be able to succeed in the Harvey Mudd curriculum. Osgood was clear that Math 2 is the best test available, far more valuable than the math assessed on the SAT or ACT. Harvey Mudd’s data reveals that granting admission to students with a Math 2 score below 650 bodes very poorly for their retention rates. Essentially, the Math 2 helps weed out students who would “struggle tremendously” at Harvey Mudd.

Math 2 plus the other four key STEM tests account for 60% of all Subject Tests administered. If you add in Literature, Math 1, and US History, you’ve accounted for 90% of all Subject Tests administered. The other 12 tests make up a measly 10% of all administered tests. And this is not good for the College Board. Every time a student goes in to take an SAT Subject Test, he receives a booklet with all 20 SAT Subject Tests. There is so much waste here, particularly as only 327 students take Hebrew, 465 Italian, 625 German- among the 200,000 plus students who receive a booklet. 

Writing and norming a new SAT Subject Test is very expensive, and the College Board has fallen well behind in this area. This presents another problem of test fraud. In my interview with Charles Ahn, who works in the South Korean test-prep market, I learned that particular tutors have flash-drives with every single SAT Subject Test in circulation for a particular subject. The College Board does not have to release SAT Subject Tests, as it does SAT Reasoning Tests, mandated by the “Truth in Testing” legislation. The College Board has no incentive to release old tests, allowing it to continue to recycle tests, leading to a heightened risk of test fraud, particularly overseas.

This lack of innovation is a major problem for the College Board. While it has systematically overhauled its flagship SAT, created a suite of successful PSATs, and overhauled its AP program, it has made next to no investment in the SAT Subject Test arena. SAT Subject Tests still have the guessing-penalty of old, still emphasize memorization over conceptual thinking, and have not been updated to align with the Common Core. But why should the College Board make the investment to overhaul all of these tests when so few people take them? Consider the relative size of the SAT Subject Tests compared to other College Board products. They are dwarfed.

The AP program is having incredible growth and will continue to do so, in spite of the AP curriculum being abandoned by some top high schools. The SAT is on a tear, recently overtaking the ACT again as the most popular college admissions test in the country. And the PSATs are surging. In contrast, the SAT Subjects are slowly fading. The College Board has 3 options:

1) Make no changes and treat the Subject Tests as a cash cow that will continue to slowly fade into oblivion.

2) Kill the whole program and forego any revenue from the 500,000+ tests administered each year.

3) Selectively invest in the program, culling the weaker, less popular tests, and overhauling the most popular tests.

I believe the smart play is option 3: cut the fat, refocus on the tests that have value, align them with the Common Core standards, introduce new, better tests and solve the test security issues. Clearly, the majority, if not all, of the language tests should be on the chopping block, as they account for 6.5% of the administered tests. The College Board would do well to focus its efforts on the products or initiatives of highest value to students. This means doubling down on math and the core sciences, creating a suite of high-level assessments of value to schools like Harvey Mudd and similarly rigorous programs. If the SAT Subject Tests have a future, it will be in STEM.


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