SAT Subject Tests See Steep Decline in Participation

By Catherine Gewertz — July 28, 2016 5 min read
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Lots of attention has been heaped on the fact that more and more students are taking the SAT or ACT. But little notice has been given to an opposite trend: the quiet slipping-away of the SAT Subject Tests.

Once known as the SAT II, and, before that, the SAT Achievement Tests, these single-subject multiple-choice exams were long a staple of many high school students’ applications to college, especially to the more selective set of institutions. But an examination of the College Board’s own reports shows a steep decline in the number of students taking those tests, especially in the last five years.

FairTest, a group that opposes high-stakes standardized testing, drew attention to the decline earlier this week by examining the data for the most recent five graduating classes. Intrigued, I looked at the College Board’s “college-bound seniors” reports for the 10 most recent graduating classes that it has published data about. Here’s what I found:

Number of SAT Subject Tests Given

  • A 25.7 percent drop between the class of 2011 and the class of 2015 (the most recent five years).
  • An 17.4 percent drop between the class of 2006 and the class of 2015 (the most recent 10 years).

Number of Students Taking SAT Subject Tests

  • A 22.6 percent drop between the class of 2011 and the class of 2015 (the most recent five years).
  • A 13.5 percent drop between the class of 2006 and the class of 2015 (the most recent 10 years).

By contrast, 1.7 million students in the class of 2015 took the SAT, up from 1.65 million four years earlier. About 1.9 million students took the ACT, a 19 percent increase from 2011.

So why are the SAT subject tests fading?

Many colleges and universities no longer require them. The University of California’s 2009 decision to stop requiring SAT subject tests put a big dent in the number of tests taken, and likely sparked others to consider similar moves. The first UC classes that didn’t need to submit SAT subject tests entered the system about five years ago, just as the number of tests and test-takers began to decline.

The UC system is huge, of course—in 2015 its freshman class pushed 200,000—but it wasn’t the only one dropping the SAT Subject Tests. Columbia University and Dartmouth College recently decided to make the SAT IIs optional, and many others have done the same.

In dropping the SAT subject test requirement, the University of California cited the difficulty it created for low-income students. Unlike their wealthier peers, low-income students often hadn’t been advised to prepare for those tests, so they found themselves at a disadvantage when it came time to apply. UC leaders also said that on top of high school transcripts and the SAT, the subject tests didn’t add much value to the process of evaluating students.

The College Board’s introduction of an essay to the main SAT exam in 2005 might also have fueled a downward trend in the use of the SAT subject tests: The organization dropped its subject test in writing in 2006. The College Board made the essay portion of the main SAT optional when it redesigned the exam for 2015.

Which Is Better: the SAT or SAT Subject Tests?

The decline in use of the subject tests is ironic, since many academics view them as better indicators of students’ true academic accomplishments than the main SAT, which has been widely criticized as coachable and a proxy for socioeconomic advantage.

Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid, William R. Fitzsimmons, told Inside Higher Ed in 2010 that the university had found the subject tests to be very strong predictors of incoming students’ academic performance, almost as good a predictor as their high school grades. (A 2008 report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that subject tests were better predictors of first-year college success than the SAT or ACT.) But Harvard still chose to drop the subject test in writing because the new SAT essay filled that role, Fitzsimmons said.

Many colleges and universities still require—or consider—SAT subject tests, however, so counselors often advise students to take them. Advice like this, from Revolution Prep, is typical:

“You want to consider the competitiveness of the school and how much you’d like to attend specific schools,” the organization says on its website. “SAT Subject Tests can often be a great way to show your depth of knowledge and present yourself as a more competitive candidate.”

Even institutions that no longer require the subject tests don’t exactly discourage students from taking them. Consider this, from the admissions section of the University of California’s website:

“While SAT Subject Tests are not required, some campuses recommend that freshman applicants interested in competitive majors take the tests to demonstrate subject proficiency. Remember, these are recommendations, not mandates. You will not be penalized for failing to take the SAT Subject Tests. On the other hand, submission of these test scores (just like submission of AP and/or IB scores) may add positively to the review of your application.”

Small but Stable Role for SAT Subject Tests

Such advice might explain in part why the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which surveys its college and university members about the factors they consider in admitting students, hasn’t seen a steep drop in their use of the SAT subject tests, as the College Board figures suggest they might.

A small but stable proportion of institutions consider the SAT IIs important. Between 2006 and 2014, 4 percent to 7 percent of NACAC’s members said they attach “considerable importance” to the SAT subject tests, a range that held steady in 2015.

Among those who don’t consider the subject tests important, however, the numbers are changing more significantly. Between 2006 and 2014, 55 percent to 60 percent of NACAC’s institutional members said the SAT IIs have “no importance” in admissions, but in 2015, that number rose to 70 percent.

“I would like to see another year of data before declaring a trend,” NACAC’s associate director of research, Melissa E. Clinedinst, said in an email, “but this increase in the percentage of colleges rating SAT II tests with no importance is certainly consistent with a decline in usage.”

Zach Goldberg, a spokesman for the College Board, said preliminary registration figures for 2015-16 suggest that more students took SAT subject tests last year than in 2015, but he declined to specify an exact number.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.