The College Board's (Smaller?) Future

Organization faces dangers in wake of eliminating the SAT Essay and Subject Tests.

January 25, 2021
 
College Board

The College Board's announcement last week that it is killing the SAT Subject Tests and the SAT Essay was both rumored for some time and a surprise.

Many had speculated that the board would be forced by the pandemic to make major changes. In the fall, it turned away hundreds of thousands of students who registered for the SAT (the main SAT and subject tests) because of test-site closures. And the vast majority of colleges are now test optional or test blind, at least for this year, meaning they will not even look at an SAT or ACT score when deciding whether to admit a student. The changes announced were clearly designed to preserve the main SAT and the Advanced Placement program.

But what of the College Board? "The College Board is a mission-driven not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity," the organization's website declares. "Founded in 1900, the College Board was created to expand access to higher education. Today, the membership association is made up of over 6,000 of the world’s leading educational institutions and is dedicated to promoting excellence and equity in education."

Many observers -- some of them long-standing critics and others sometime fans -- say the College Board will be smaller and less influential in the future. And they expect most colleges that went test optional this year to stay that way, further eroding the board's influence. (The College Board did not respond to questions about its finances and future. Nor did several admissions officials who are known to be sympathetic to testing.)

"Although there were an increasing number of schools adopting test-optional admission policies, in this area, as in so many others, the pandemic has accelerated what will come to be permanent changes in the functioning of our society," said Steve Syverson, a retired senior admissions official at the University of Washington at Bothell and Lawrence University.

"Lots of colleges didn't really even need to require the SAT, as they were already admitting everyone who was admissible, but they didn't want to eliminate it as a requirement because they felt it would devalue them," Syverson continued. "In a sense, the pandemic -- and the pervasive adoption of temporary test-optional or test-blind policies -- gave them permission to eliminate the requirement. And I believe a large number of institutions will not return to requiring it. So I think there's no going back."

Syverson was the co-author of a 2018 report that found colleges that are test optional generally get more applications and more diversity among those applicants and among students.

While he expects more colleges to stay test optional, he doesn't think the College Board will fade away. "I doubt they will disappear even if the SAT does," he said. "In some way they are perhaps too big to fail. They provide other value to education and I expect they will find ways to pivot to cover the revenue loss of the SAT. In addition to an effort to bolster use of the AP exams, I expect they will navigate toward adding some other sort of standardized assessment for use by colleges."

Pat McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, which does not require tests for admissions, said, "Eliminating the SAT essay and subject tests is an admission of some problems in the SAT system, but hardly enough of an overhaul."

She added, via email, "If the College Board really wants to save itself, it would eliminate the SAT entirely and, instead, become a leader in working with institutions to develop innovative strategies for assessing student strengths and competencies, not only in high school but across the life span, thus helping higher education do a better job of matching students and programs more effectively. More effective matching of student talents and interests would reduce attrition and wasted credits, save students money and increase completion, a win-win for everybody. But as it is right now, the SAT is simply a high barrier that funnels students without much concern for what happens to them once they get through the barrier."

A high school counselor who asked not to be identified said, "My small-d democratic side says, goodbye tests, good riddance to chasing a test score, goodbye to a zillion-dollar test prep industry, goodbye to a built-in advantage to resourced kids and schools." She is quick to add, though, that even if that happened, and the role of the College Board shrank, there would still be a need for changes in admissions to bring students from diverse backgrounds into higher education.

The other side for her is that "tests give the illusion of a meritocracy," and that parents -- at least of the wealthy -- love tests. Eliminating the SAT would be very difficult in that environment, she said.

Rod Bugarin, an Ed.D. candidate in higher education at the University of Denver and founder of ExpertCollegeConsulting.com, said, "As the college admission profession has evolved to include more grassroots, front-line colleagues and focused-interests groups, we see leadership as those professionals and organizations who are working directly with students and parents. The leadership model behind the College Board historically has been deans at elite colleges and college counselors at private schools. In other words, organizations that support the College Board's products."

He said, "While this has changed in the last decade, there are still far too many admissions leaders who are in C-suite offices -- instead of those who work directly with students and in the community -- who advise the College Board. This is why the new generation of admissions leaders see the organization as a typewriter or rotary phone. It's an organization that hasn't evolved to meet the needs of its members and, as a result, has lost its relevance."

Robert Schaeffer, interim executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, and a long-standing critic of the College Board, said via email, "FairTest's read is that the College Board is becoming increasingly nervous financially and is doubling down on pushing its flagship products -- the SAT and AP -- to maintain its income stream. Based on test-taking numbers published by Inside Higher Ed and others, annual PSAT volume is down by 2.4 million (at $19 each, that's $45+ million) and SAT volume is down 800K (at ~$50 each, another $40+ million). There's no way to calculate the hit to their hugely profitable list rental business from the sharp reduction in the number of student names available to market, but even if the total revenue decline is 'only' $100 million, that's still serious money for a billion dollar a year business."

He added, "So, I feel increasingly comfortable with our initial analysis that the retrenchment announced on Tuesday was consistent with other corporations facing severe market threats -- shed peripheral products and concentrate more heavily on its big breadwinners. Time will tell how well this strategy works, but the board faces additional economic headwinds from schools extending SAT/ACT-optional policies (both Amherst and Penn State went to three-year pilots this month), the sharp increase in test score nonsubmitters among current seniors applying for admission, and the ugly reality that the pandemic will keep many test centers shut this spring."

Details on the Changes

The board also announced plans to create "a more flexible SAT -- a streamlined, digitally delivered test that meets the evolving needs of students and higher education." But the board did not release additional details on the new SAT.

The changes come as the pandemic has created huge problems for the College Board and its competitor in admissions testing, ACT. In October, 154,000 students who signed up to take the SAT were unable to do so because of test center closures. In December, 124,000 students were unable to take the SAT because of pandemic-related facility closures. With so many students kept from the tests, the vast majority of colleges have either gone test optional or test blind, meaning they will not even look at an SAT or ACT score when deciding whether to admit a student.

The College Board linked its problems finding places to test to eliminating the SAT Subject Tests. It said it would be "locating seats that would have gone to students taking Subject Tests to students who want to take the SAT."

Further, "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."

The SAT subject tests, once called achievement tests, are given in a range of academic subjects. A generation ago, two or three of the tests were typically required for admission to top colleges. But those numbers have dwindled in recent years, and the number of people taking the test has dwindled as well.

In 2017, about 1.8 million high school students took the SAT, but only 219,000 took a subject test. A total of 542,000 subject tests were taken, as most people who took a subject test took more than one. But most of those tests and most of the essays written during the same time period weren't required by colleges to which students applied. Many students took the exams or wrote the essay for one or two of several colleges to which they were applying, but they may have enrolled elsewhere.

A College Board spokesman said at the time that the organization remained "committed to offering SAT subject tests. Students and colleges value the information they provide for admissions and placement."

In 2018, and the prior year or two, many colleges that had required the SAT essay dropped the requirement, even while still requiring the main SAT.

Last week, the College Board explained dropping the essay by saying the decision recognized "that there are other ways for students to demonstrate their mastery of essay writing."

The essay question debuted in 2005, several years after a 2001 speech by Richard Atkinson, then president of the University of California system, that called for a better way to test writing. Last year, amid the pandemic, the University of California dropped the SAT and the ACT as a requirement for admissions.

Reaction to the College Board's announcement was varied.

Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, has pushed for colleges to drop testing requirements. He said, "Any move towards simplification and removing hurdles for students in this process is a step in the right direction."

Some support the subject tests, although supporters are harder to locate for the essay.

James Malone, a high school counselor at Garden City Public Schools in New York, recommended just Tuesday morning -- the day of the College Board announcement -- that a student who wanted to be an engineering major take the SAT advanced mathematic and chemistry tests. Then he read the College Board update.

"To me they serve a purpose for those students who have a particular strength and want to illustrate their talent in an objective way," he said. "At the very selective schools, I think the more metrics the better to find the best candidates."

Others gave the nixed tests mixed reviews. Katie Burns is a master admissions counselor at IvyWise, a company that consults with students on admissions. She is also former senior assistant director of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"While subject tests have helped students to show talent and mastery in a particular subject when perhaps they earned a lower grade in the actual class or did poorly on the AP test, I have not found the subject tests to be very predictive of a student's aptitude or potential for success in a particular subject," Burns said.

What's better than a subject test? Students' grades, Burns said.

"The grade they are earning in the class day in and day out, from doing the work, taking care of business, preparing for quizzes and tests, those grades speak much more volumes about a student's work ethic and potential than one 60-minute multiple-choice test," Burns said.

Over all, it seems safe to say neither colleges nor students will be disappointed by the departures of the SAT subject tests and SAT essay, said Isaac Botier, executive director of college admissions programs at Kaplan.

"For college applicants, this shift allows them to focus more on the tests that can help them secure college credit and win merit-based aid, which are the AP exams," Botier said. "And a strong SAT score remains an effective way for applicants to distinguish themselves in what continues to be a competitive college admissions process."

The College Board needed last week's announcement to stem the tide of the current antitest movement, said Robert J. Massa, principal and co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now.

"I do believe that most of the newly test-optional institutions (with the exception of the überselective colleges) will stay test optional, but I also agree with the board that students will want to take the test to give themselves an edge in the admissions process."

It's not clear whether SAT's competitor, ACT, will follow suit with any of its offerings.

"ACT is reviewing options for 2021-22 test takers to drive the best possible outcomes for students," a spokeswoman said.

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