Updated at 5:03 p.m. ET
The College Board announced on Tuesday that it will discontinue the optional essay component of the SAT and that it will no longer offer subject tests in U.S. history, languages and math, among other topics. The organization, which administers the college entrance exam in addition to several other tests, including Advanced Placement exams, will instead focus efforts on a new digital version of the SAT.
In the announcement, the organization cited the coronavirus pandemic for these changes: "The pandemic accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to reduce and simplify demands on students."
College entrance exams have had a hard go of it during the pandemic. Many in-person testing dates for the SAT were canceled because of social distancing needs and closed high school buildings; a previous digital version of the SAT was scrapped in June after technical difficulties; and hundreds of colleges have removed the exam from admissions requirements, in some cases permanently.
Few colleges require the optional writing portion of the SAT or the subject tests, though students can still submit them to supplement their college applications. The AP exams have become far more important in demonstrating mastery of subjects and, in some cases, providing college credit.
"Removing the subject tests can remove a barrier for students," says Ashley L. Bennett, director of college counseling at KIPP Sunnyside High School in Houston. But, she adds, "I believe that standardized testing in general needs to be less emphasized in the college search process."
Elizabeth Heaton advises families about college admissions at College Coach in Watertown, Mass. She thinks the changes could help put some students on a more level playing field. "For students who aren't getting great advising, it is nice to see that they haven't been eliminated from competition just by virtue of not having a test that they may not have known about."
But Catalina Cifuentes, who works to promote college access in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, has reservations. She worries that removing the SAT subject tests will create more barriers for her students, rather than less.
"Hundreds of my students take the subject tests in Spanish and other languages because it provides them an opportunity to show their understanding of a second language," explains Cifuentes.
Many of her students speak a second language at home and would be the first in their family to go to college.
She says her college-bound students often enroll in the University of California and California State University systems, which both require two years of coursework in another language for admission. The SAT foreign-language tests sometimes filled that requirement, but the removal of these exams means Cifuentes will have to shift gears.
"We will need to work closely with our world language teachers to expand on ideas ... for students who already read, write and speak another language," she says.
Her job is all about helping school districts adapt to decisions from colleges and organizations like the College Board, Cifuentes explains.
"Every decision they discuss — there's real repercussions. There's no right or wrong decision, but with everything they do, it should be students first."
Eda Uzunlar is an intern on NPR's Education Desk.