2 Cheers for Getting Rid of the SAT Essay and the Subject Tests

The eliminated tests had some purposes, even if they were flawed, writes Ben Paris.

January 25, 2021
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The College Board is discontinuing the SAT Essay and the Subject Tests, and it’s hard to find anyone who will miss them. Expressing any affection for these tests is like admitting that you preferred New Coke or liked the way that Game of Thrones ended. Still, before the last shovelful of dirt is packed into the grave, it’s worth thinking about what, if anything, was lost, and what might have been better.

The SAT Essay Didn’t Care What You Thought or Believed

Given the controversy over the other parts of the SAT, it’s easy to forget about the changes to the essay, but the SAT essay deserves some attention for the oddness of the task and the view of education that it promoted. The regime at the College Board wants everything to be based on how you analyze evidence that other people have provided and not whether you can come up with evidence or arguments yourself. David Coleman, the College Board's president, expressed his view on this years ago when he declared (during a meeting explaining the Common Core to educators), “People really don’t give a [expletive] about what you feel or what you think.” His view of writing prevailed in the design of the SAT essay.

The soon-to-be-departed SAT essay was a “rhetorical analysis task” that required you to read a passage and explain how the author builds his or her case. Your own opinion on the matter at hand didn’t matter, and the directions specifically warn you not to present your own view. Instead, you basically presented a book report explaining what the author is trying to show and how he or she does it. What does that mean? A look at the sample essays provided by the College Board reveals what they wanted you to do: the high-scoring essays lavished praise on the authors for their effective communications strategies but did not critically evaluate the claims that they are making. Instead of making your own case, you needed to spoon out appreciation for the rhetorical wonders the College Board has set before you. And you had to do it in an extremely formulaic way. The sample high-scoring essays were like Mad Libs in which you plug details into an outline, and I taught my students to use exactly the same approach every time to make sure that the essay scorers got what they expected.

This is simultaneously odd, offensive, counterproductive and contradictory to the supposed principles of the new SAT. It’s odd because it’s really difficult to analyze the use of evidence without evaluating the merits of the issue at hand. It’s offensive because we’re telling students that their opinions don’t matter and rewarding them for sycophantic “praise” essays. It’s counterproductive because to succeed in college and in the workforce, you need to be able to describe and defend your point of view on issues on which reasonable people will disagree. To top it off, many students were unfamiliar with this essay format, which conflicted with the goal of making the SAT just another application of the activities they already do in school. Of course, if more schools adopted the Common Core approach to writing, they would have been more familiar with this approach, but that would be even worse: imagine if a generation grew up being familiar with this kind of task and thought that this is what writing is about. Maybe they would be surprised to discover that essays ever asked you for your opinion. Why would anyone do that, anyway?

Fortunately for humanity, the SAT essay was rejected by the colleges. In just a few years, very few required it. I’d like to think that this reflected disapproval of the vision of education behind it, but there are other explanations: the scoring was confusing and difficult to interpret, and the process of scoring millions of essays was a logistical nightmare. In any case, getting rid of it is a win, right? Well … mostly. The “rhetorical analysis” essay continues to be a big part of writing education nowadays, and is it possible that we’re missing something by getting rid of a writing requirement?

There’s a case to be made for some form of writing to be done in a proctored environment. Writing remains an essential skill, but people tend to focus where the points are, and if essays are de-emphasized on tests, they’ll be de-emphasized in education. Personally, I’d prefer an unscored essay that can be written from a choice of topics. Let the writing speak for itself. You’d be amazed about what you can learn about writing ability from just a few sentences written in a proctored environment.

SAT Subject Tests Might Have Been Better Than the Alternatives

The SAT Subject Tests were designed to let you show your skill in particular subjects, which kind of makes sense. No one test was required, and you could pick ones that matched your interests. So if you’re interested in advanced math, history, specific sciences or other things, why not have a chance to show what you know?

That was the idea, but in practice, the SAT subject tests felt like just another test. They usually weren’t that important in the college admissions process, so in practice they were a lot of work for not a lot of reward. They weren’t “popular,” with popularity defined by the number of test takers, and so they’ve faded away. Even though they won’t be missed by many, it’s worth considering what fills the vacuum left by their absence.

Think about the damage we do by making everyone take the same test. Right now, millions of people are forced to take courses that don’t interest them and have little practical benefit for them. And these courses are crowding out things that are much more important. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if students at least had the option of taking consumer finance or statistics instead of Algebra II? What’s more important, parabolas and polynomials or understanding how to make a household budget? And don’t we think we would be better off if we required less about matrix multiplication (my top nominee for the chopping block) and more about civics?

Under the SAT subject test approach, people who were interested in advanced math could take the upper-level test. And good for them! But no one was forced to. Isn’t it better to allow some people to show their skill in the areas that interest them instead of forcing everyone to study lots of things that don’t interest them?

But what about the Advanced Placement tests? The College Board claims that “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.” That’s not completely ridiculous, but keep in mind that taking the AP tests typically involves taking an entirely separate course, and that course represents a particular take on the subject, which typically involves delivering a firehose of content and little critical reflection. Ask current teenagers who are engaged in this rat race why they are taking AP courses and see how much of it reflects genuine interest in the subject. Then ask them if their AP experience has stoked their interest or brought them closer to exhaustion and collapse. You’ll find that students are taking these courses because they feel that they need to. Grade inflation and increased competition means that everyone needs to find new ways to stand out, and if signing up for a numbing, irrelevant experience is a way to get an edge in college admissions, that’s what people will do.

None of this is a reason to bring back the SAT subject tests. Still, we should take a hard look at the consequences of making the APs even more prominent. The SAT and ACT have few defenders nowadays, but if we get rid of them, will we be happy with alternative ways for students to stand out in an increasingly competitive field?


Ben Paris is a private tutor and learning designer with more than 25 years of experience in test preparation and educational assessment. He has designed test-preparation courses, trained hundreds of teachers and personally taught thousands of students how to succeed on standardized tests.


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