A generation ago, the testing norm for elite colleges was to require applicants to have taken three of the SAT subject tests. The tests, previously called the SAT II or the achievement tests, are subject specific and test knowledge of mathematics, sciences, literature, history and languages.
In 2010, Harvard and Georgetown Universities stopped requiring three of the tests, and they were the last institutions to do so. Even requirements to submit scores from two of the tests are going away. In September Rice University ended such a requirement. The University of Pennsylvania ended its requirement in 2015. Other institutions that have dropped requirements in the past few years include Amherst College, Columbia University, Dartmouth College and Carnegie Mellon University. Only a handful of colleges still require two of the tests, although some institutions that don't have general requirements do require those who have been homeschooled or those who are opting not to submit SAT scores to submit subject-test scores.
The colleges that still require the tests tend to be math and science oriented, places like California Institute of Technology, Harvey Mudd College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Webb Institute -- all institutions where perfect or near-perfect scores on the math SAT are common. These institutions generally require one of the two mathematics tests and one science exam. Some institutions, such as Cooper Union, require the tests only of engineering students. Two institutions, Cornell and Tufts Universities, give their arts and sciences applicants choices on which subject tests to submit, but require mathematics and a science exam for engineering applicants. Harvard University continues to require two tests, but gives a choice as to which ones.
Far more typical among elite colleges these days are policies such as that of Princeton University, which recommends but does not require the tests, but does so with language that counselors say makes applicants feel like it is an unstated requirement. The Princeton policy says, "Some students may find the cost of taking and submitting SAT subject tests to be prohibitive. Please note you will not be penalized for not submitting SAT subject tests if the cost of taking the tests causes financial hardship. In such instances, we will rely on rigor of course work, strength of recommendations, quality of writing in the essays and any other information available to us."
Swarthmore College says that it will "consider" subject scores if submitted, but that they are not required. But those seeking to study engineering are "encouraged" to submit a mathematics subject exam.
With only a few colleges requiring the tests, and others saying that they are recommended or will be considered (with various caveats), the numbers of high school students taking the subject tests is much smaller than those taking the SAT or ACT.
About 1.8 million high school students took the SAT in 2017, but only 219,000 took a subject test. A total of 542,000 tests were taken.
The Princeton Review has been using data released by the College Board to examine trends in how many people are taking which exams. The data show a steady decline in the number of subject test takers, from 312,000 in 2011 to this year's total of only a little more than two-thirds of that. The data also show that the STEM tests attract many more students, with the advanced math test attracting more than 140,000 people, and chemistry and biology both at 68,000. While history isn't far behind, at 58,000, languages lag. Spanish attracted more than 16,000, but German and Italian were under 1,000 students each.
Several counselors said, privately to avoid offending the College Board, that they considered the subject tests to be superior educationally to the SAT. The subject tests, they said, truly reward those who take advanced courses in high school and work hard in them. Students who just "test well" can't shine on the subject tests without real subject-matter knowledge, they said.
Still, rumors abound that the College Board does not view the program as a priority. The rumors appear based not on any information directly from the College Board, but on the erosion of colleges with requirements, and the College Board's failure to thus far adopt on the subject tests the improvements that have been a priority for the SAT. For instance, the new version of the SAT does not contain the dreaded "guessing penalty" on wrong answers, and the College Board has made much of this shift as a way to be supportive of test takers. The penalty remains on the subject tests.
A College Board spokesman said that the organization "remains committed to offering SAT subject tests. Students and colleges value the information they provide for admissions and placement." As to ending the guessing penalty, he said that "this is something we are considering with our members. The redesigned SAT introduced changes that colleges needed time to prepare for. Our members asked us not to change the SAT subject tests at the same time, so we continue to carefully evaluate the timeline for making that type of change."
Fans and Skeptics
Those admissions leaders who continue to rely on the tests say they provide valuable information.
Jarrid Whitney, executive director of admissions and financial aid at Caltech, which continues to require subject tests, said that the results provide "a more granular perspective" on applicants' math and science abilities, which are "critical," given Caltech's emphasis and rigor.
James M. Colman, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown University, said that the institution shifted from required to recommended out of concern for students who may have difficulty getting access to or completing the subject tests. He said that the scores still have real value, however, in part based on the idea that "having more information at hand is almost always better." He said that committees find scores helpful in weighing applications. This may be especially important, he said, for students who study languages but don't participate in Advanced Placement programs, or for homeschooled students.
More broadly, he said, subject-test scores are helpful in light of grade inflation, and the growing number of high schools that don't report on class rank or that have "otherwise obscured distinctions and differences in student academic performance."
Admissions leaders at colleges that have shifted away from requiring the tests are not critical of the tests, but several said they worry about the fees scaring off low-income students, even though the College Board has a system that allows them to seek fee waivers. The basic fees are $26 to register for a test date at which someone can take one, two or three exams; $21 for each test; and $26 for language tests that include portions in which test takers listen to the language and respond.
Katie Fretwell, dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst College, said that changes that were part of the new version of the SAT gave her more confidence in using that test without subject tests. But she also said the move to optional was a way to help low-income students and also to "lower the flame" for higher-income students, since "testing hype" is greatest among wealthier families.
Lee Coffin, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College, said a shift there from required to recommended was intended to encourage more applicants from high schools with many low-income students, where people may not talk about or prepare for subject tests.
Michael Steidel, dean of admission at Carnegie Mellon University, said that the decision there, too, was based on cost to applicants. Via email, he said that "we had been hearing from a growing number of candidates that the cost of taking either the SAT or ACT along with two SAT subject tests was becoming financially prohibitive and, as a result, putting Carnegie Mellon out of reach as a possible choice for a college experience."
Wendie Lubic, a private college counselor in Washington, works with many students who are applying to top colleges -- the group of institutions that either require, recommend or accept the tests.
She said that the tests definitely help some applicants, especially those who don't take AP exams. But she said that many of these students are hurt because they may stop a language at the end of sophomore year and may not learn about the tests until the end of junior year, when some language proficiency has been lost.
Some colleges have in the past required the tests along with the SAT, or just the ACT without the tests. Lubic recalled one case where a student didn't do well on one subject test and so then opted to take and report only the ACT. Lubic said her bottom line is whether the score on any test "accurately represents the student."
The problem she has seen as more colleges drop requirements is an increase in confusion. Her students want to do what colleges want them to do, and they believe (many times correctly, Lubic said) that colleges still prefer to have the scores.
"The students are all asking, 'should I send?'" she said. "We all know that optional is not really optional, and recommended is not really recommended."