What’s more stressful than applying for college on a normal day? Doing it during a pandemic, when testing centers close unexpectedly, students are quarantined with minutes notice, and families struggle financially. Luckily all seniors, this year and last, are facing the same problems. Both College Board and some universities have taken notice and adjusted admission requirements to adapt to the times. Most recently, College Board announced plans to drop the SAT optional essay and subject tests. This helps remove another obstacle for students trying to apply to some of the most prestigious schools in the country.
The essay and subject tests were additional ways students could demonstrate their abilities in topics such as languages, chemistry, and history. Colleges sometimes used them to determine freshman year class placements. But for some, the tests were an expensive and redundant option. Students had already paid for AP testing on the same subjects and other standardized tests.
Why did College Board drop these optional tests?
In College Board’s press release on January 19 , they explain their reasoning. “The pandemic accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to reduce and simplify demands on students.”
To that end, they announced the three changes:
- Discontinuing the subject tests. “The expanded reach of AP and its widespread availability for low-income students and students of color means the Subject Tests are no longer necessary for students to show what they know.”
- Discontinuing the optional essay. “This decision recognizes that there are other ways for students to demonstrate their mastery of essay writing.”
- Creating a streamlined, digital test to increase access “to prioritize health and safety.”
The change helps alleviate student stress.
My high school seniors already feel stressed over college essays, deadlines, the prospect of virtual learning both for the rest of high school and for college, and testing access during the pandemic. This optional testing “opportunity” is now one less thing to worry about.
Their mental health depends on a less rigid and competitive process, with fewer total steps required to begin in the fall at their dream schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quantifies the mental health crisis for students age 12 to 17 years old: from March to October 2020, the number of hospital emergency room visits for mental health concerns rose 31 percent. We’ve yet to determine the true extent of pandemic living and learning on our youngest populations.
Students can still show writing and subject-level skills.
They don’t need one more essay or test. Instead, students can show their essay writing through the actual college essay, their AP English score, and other testing means. The regular SAT itself still measures writing and editing skills, too.
Students also need equal access to testing.
In 2020, the College Board said, “Students filed 2.2 million registrations to take the SAT on a weekend. But only about 900,000 tests were taken during those sessions. Numerous exam centers closed for public health reasons, sometimes with little notice. Hundreds of thousands more SATs were administered last year through publicly funded programs during school days.” As schools around the country remain in a virtual or hybrid setting, testing in person during the school day will be another casualty of the pandemic. This results in decreased access to the test.
Some universities are responding to inequities as well, trending towards dropping traditional standardized tests temporarily and even permanently. The University of California responded to pandemic needs in May by suspending testing requirements for two years and omitting test scores from in-state applications for 2023 and 2024. Other universities are temporarily following with similar “test-optional” and “test-blind” stances, instead focusing on other aspects such as transcripts, AP test scores, and leadership.
But, is there another reason for canceling the tests?
As we watch for the short and long-term effects of this decision, our attention now turns to the potential motivation … to increase involvement in AP classes and tests. If educators are now encouraged to push AP classes on students who maybe shouldn’t be in them for the sake of college competition, as some teachers and educators fear, then the SAT decision may have been for nothing.
As teachers watching actual, live, human 18-year-olds grapple with life-changing decisions, and the application process that goes along with those, we implore colleges and testing organizations to consider the simplest, most accessible, and most streamlined version of your processes. For their futures, and their mental health.
What do you think about the plan to drop the optional SAT essay and subject tests? Share in the comments below.
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