Era Ends for 3 Subject Test Requirements

August 9, 2010

For years, applicants to the most competitive colleges in the United States had to submit three scores on SAT Subject Tests (once known as "achievement tests" and sometimes called SAT II) in addition to the better-known main SAT, with its verbal, mathematics and (more recently) writing sections. But the last two colleges that required three -- Harvard and Georgetown Universities -- are this year changing their policies.

A recent review by the National Association for College Admission Counseling could not identify any American colleges continuing the requirement. One Canadian institution -- the University of Toronto -- still requires three SAT subject tests, NACAC found. Plenty of American students will, of course, continue to take more than two subject tests, as they look for impressive scores, opt to submit more scores than required, or apply to particular programs that require specific subject scores.

In addition, some colleges that have dropped requirements for submitting the main SAT have said that this option depends on submitting other test scores such as the SAT subject tests. In addition, many colleges do not require subject tests if students submit an ACT score, since that test is more closely aligned to curricular subjects.

With the shifts from the last institutions holding out for three subject tests, competitive college admissions may be seeing one of the more significant impacts of the College Board's introduction in 2005 of a new writing test on the main portion of the SAT. While the SAT writing test has drawn mixed reviews from educators, it led the College Board in 2006 to stop offering a subject test in writing and many of the elite colleges that until then had required three subject tests started to shift to requiring only two. The College Board currently offers subject tests in 20 areas, including literature, history, mathematics and a variety of languages and sciences.

The decreased emphasis on the subject tests is somewhat ironic in that many skeptics of standardized testing and critics of the main SAT have much better things to say about the subject tests, which they see as less coachable and less likely to reward good test-taking skills. It is difficult to do well on a subject test, most educators agree, without having pursued serious study of the various subjects.

William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, said he remained "very much" a fan of the SAT subject tests, and that they were the single best predictor, followed by high school grades, of first-year grades of Harvard undergraduates.

But he said that the university decided to stop requiring three subject tests because the writing test on the main part of the SAT "has turned out to be a valid predictor of grades, just the way the subject tests are." (He stressed that his conclusion was based on the university's research on its own students, and was not a conclusion about college students generally.)

Upon seeing the SAT writing test "acting very much like a subject test," he said that it made sense to scale back the subject test requirement, since (counting the writing test as a subject test) applicants will be undergoing roughly the same amount of subject testing as they did before writing joined the main SAT.

Fitzsimmons said he believed it was important that colleges consider all the impacts of testing. "We don't want to be in a situation," he said, "that might discourage a student from a poorer economic background" with extensive testing requirements. He also said that he believes that testing "reaches a point of diminishing returns" where various tests can at a certain point fail to provide much new information about an applicant who has already submitted other test scores, grades and so forth.

Reflecting similar thinking, some colleges only encourage, but don't require, two subject tests. Stanford University's testing policy, for example, states: "We recommend taking at least two SAT Subject Tests, as such information will assist us in our evaluation process. Applicants, however, who choose not to take SAT Subject Tests will not be at a disadvantage in the admission process."

Georgetown is taking a similar approach. It no longer requires three subject tests, but still "strongly" recommends submission of three scores. Charles Deacon, dean of undergraduate admissions there, explained via e-mail: "Georgetown, like Harvard and other selective schools, finds SAT IIs to be quite predictive of academic success at a high school level and we feel they are a valuable addition to SAT Is or ACTs. However, we are aware that for a variety of reasons, students may find it difficult to submit these results so we want to make it clear that they can still apply and we will do our best to consider them fairly based upon the information they are able to provide."

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