The Demise of the SAT Subject Tests and Essay: An International Perspective

By: Anne Richardson and Chemeli Kipkorir

Editor’s note: In August 2020, NACAC released a report urging colleges and universities to examine their policies and practices concerning standardized tests and their potential impact on equity and access. This column is the fourth in a series of articles reflecting on the report’s recommendations and offering insight into the current state of standardized admission testing.

Outside the US, submitting a transcript of classroom achievement is seldom required when applying to universities, which makes testing all the more important in the admission process. While the demise of SAT Subject Tests was welcomed and applauded, international counselors encountered some anxiety and questions from students and parents alike about the potential need to take additional exams such as TOEFL, IELTS, and Advanced Placement tests, especially if applying to non-US universities. This was especially true in regions where students routinely work with agents, and where test prep is an aggressive and big business.

SAT Subject Tests had traditionally been important for US students applying to international universities, especially in non-AP curricula. “With many international high school qualifications focusing on external testing, subject specialism, and the need to have direct entry to a single-subject course of study, SAT Subject Tests allowed US-curriculum students in the US and internationally to meet entry requirements even if they did not have an appropriate AP class,” explained David Hawkins, an independent educational consultant in the UK. “Without Subject Tests, this pathway has been closed to many students. UK universities have struggled to respond to this sudden change—it is not possible for many international universities to become test-optional given the credential-based nature of so many national admissions systems.”

The experience of admission professionals the University of Sussex highlights the complexity and nuance of the situation.As a UK university where American system school applicants are common, but not the most prevalent of all qualifications, we are still learning,” officials said. “We value insights from key stakeholders, such as school counselors, the College Board, and overseas representatives that help inform admissions teams of the changing examination and assessment landscape for students following the American curriculum, that in turn, help us to provide quality information, advice, and clear guidance with regard to entry requirements. The tendency for the time being is to encourage students where possible to take AP courses with the exam at the end, but as far as UK universities go, our admissions teams are trying to be as holistic and supportive as possible to students.”

The University of Bath, also in the UK, is following a similar path. Following a discussion with the College Board more than three years ago, the institution abandoned Subject Tests, instead focusing its emphasis on AP tests. Students who aren’t taking an AP curriculum can enroll in an International Foundation Year to prepare for their studies at Bath.

These responses seem to reflect—and perhaps this is the College Board’s intention—a swerve to AP testing as a qualification for students in US-based curricula, which could cause difficulties for those schools that do not offer AP courses. In addition, although this was again welcomed by most, the loss of the SAT essay section has placed some emphasis and pressure on taking English proficiency tests as a way to satisfy visa requirements, and it is to be hoped that the uptake of the easily accessible and much cheaper Duolingo test will be expanded.

Testing remains an important and significant reality for international students wishing to apply to other countries besides the US, and this has increased the need for careful and informed counseling for students, particularly those applying to more than one country. Counselors serving students in US-based curricula will continue to need to balance test-optional admission pathways with the requirements of subject-based test scores of some kind for non-US universities, especially in non-AP curricula. For non-US universities, a holistic approach that includes transcripts as a demonstration of academic rigor would be a truer reflection of a student’s true capabilities. In addition, a solid understanding about the rigors of curricula such as the International Baccalaureate and other international leaving exams is essential for university admission officers.

The pandemic has provided huge opportunities to re-imagine the university admission process with respect to testing. As non-US colleges and universities realign their testing policies following the permanent cancellation of these tests, we hope that they use these suggested guidelines as outlined in the NACAC report:

  • Be student-centered. Are your policies student-centered and focused on student success? Are your university admission officers knowledgeable about high school curricula?
  • Consider unintended consequences. As universities and the College Board pivots toward AP testing, what will the unintended consequences be of requiring AP tests in lieu of Subject Tests for students in high school, particularly in schools where AP courses are not offered?

Ultimately, most international students and US students wishing to study internationally in the coming years will still need to take tests.

Anne Richardson chaired the NACAC International Initiatives Committee, chaired the International ACAC Ad-Hoc Committee on Testing, and was a member of the NACAC Task Force on Standardized Admission Testing for International and US Students. She is currently a university adviser and the director of the Office of Student Advising at The American School in London.

Chemeli Kipkorir is a college counselor at the Shanghai American School, Puxi campus. Prior to joining the school in 2019, Chemeli worked with HALI students at African Leadership Academy in South Africa. She has college admission experience having previously worked in the US at her alma mater, The College of Wooster (OH). She was also a member of the NACAC Task Force on Standardized Admission Testing for International and US Students and is an active member of International ACAC.

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