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SAT changes show declining impact exam has on college admissions

By Andrew Goldstein and Nick Trombola
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS

PITTSBURGH - The College Board recently announced that it was ending the optional essay-writing portion and subject tests of the SAT exams.

But is what appears to be a significant change to an exam that for decades has been a rite of passage as part of the college application process really so consequential?

“The best way I can describe my reaction to this is, ‘If a tree falls in a woods, and there's no one there to hear it, did it really happen?’” said David Barkovich, a counselor at North Hills High School. “I don’t think most are even going to notice it’s gone.”

While the inclusion of SAT scores remains a fixture in many college applications, admissions officers have put less weight on them in recent years. Some college admission leaders have even decided that SAT scores are not needed and that testing requirements might deter otherwise worthy applicants. And even fewer schools require potential students to complete the optional essay or subject tests.

The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the number of schools ending or suspending their SAT requirements as many college-bound students have struggled since last spring to find testing centers available at the right time and place.

Of course, changes to the SAT were not uncommon before the pandemic as adjustments were occasionally made to the test’s content and scoring system.

The essay, first included in the SAT in 2005, asks students to read a prompt and write a response to it. It adds 50 minutes to the three-hour test and is scored separately from the main exam.

Subject tests in areas such as math, literature, history, biology, chemistry, physics and various foreign languages took an hour to complete and were mostly used by students to separate themselves from others applying to get into highly competitive schools.

Joel Bauman, Duquesne University’s senior vice president of enrollment management, said students applying to colleges that specialized in particular fields would take the subject tests. For example, he said, students could take the math and science tests if they wanted to apply to California Institute of Technology.

He said he believes that some students now will miss out if they can’t take the subject exams, but he added that colleges and universities have stopped looking for that level of knowledge from applicants.

“We have moved on as a society from that and from admissions from requiring that and showing us that level of mastery,” Bauman said.

Other programs remain available that provide college applicants with an opportunity to show their skills, such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, he said.

Some students still worry, though, that ending the essay option and subject tests reduces their ability to show the content areas in which they excel.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” said Mariea Barno, a sophomore at North Hills High School. “Teachers can look at grades and can see which students are predominantly English or math students, and I feel like taking away one section or another would advantage some students and disadvantage others.”

But the elimination of the exams aligns with how colleges have changed their approach to selecting students, according to David DeBor, director of college counseling at Pittsburgh Prep, an organization that provides instruction, tutoring and guidance to high school students.

Colleges have shifted to scrutinizing students in the context of their high school curriculum, he said, making a transcript the most important document in any college application.

“This is an opportunity for (students) to have one less exam to worry about and to really focus on maximizing their performance in a rigorous curriculum at their high school, which is the best way of showing a college that they’re ready to do the work and ready to succeed,” DeBor said. “That rigor of a student’s high school curriculum is far more important than a subject test on its own ever was.”

Although ending the optional essay and subject tests may at first seem to take some stress off students, the move might transfer the strain elsewhere, according to Julie Cuturilo, a social studies instructor at Hempfield Area High School who also teaches SAT preparatory courses.

She said the changes have forced her to pressure her students into taking other tests that highlight their abilities in specific areas, such as the AP exams.

“Some of them have the (AP) course, but they don’t necessarily want to take the exam at the end. So I think, a little bit, it puts more pressure on them, actually,” Cuturilo said. “I think the SAT idea was to lessen the load on them. But for some of the AP kids, now they feel a little bit more stressed because they feel like they have to do that exam to be able to showcase certain areas.”

Mark Varlotta, a counselor at Mars Area High School, expressed concern that students who were gifted writers or talented in a subject in which a test was offered could lose out.

“Since the SAT is proctored, you could gauge the quality of how students actually write on their own,” he said. “Whereas with personal statements for college applications, who knows if they’re actually writing them on their own or if they’re getting help?”

And if it becomes harder for students to separate themselves from others, Varlotta said, it may also be more difficult for colleges to select them.

“Without something more personal like the essay component, it’s hard in my opinion to compare student transcripts,” he said. “What if two students have essentially the same grades and scores? How do you differentiate and choose between them as a college admissions person?”

Bauman, the Duquesne admissions VP, advised students to show colleges work they have done in place of the SAT essay or subject tests. He warns, though, that some schools may not allow students to submit anything extra.

“A school like Duquesne, we’re interested in any additional information that helps us know more about the student, be able to be proud of them when they come into the school and brag about them that they’re here and not somewhere else, and really help them develop into the person they’re meant to be,” he said.