Explained: How changes to SAT could impact Indian students aspiring to study in the US

There are currently 53 SAT test centres across India. With the possibility of AP exams becoming more popular among Indian students, the number of AP test centres in India is expected to rise from the current 16.

Written by Rya Jetha

On January 19, the College Board, a New York City-based organisation that runs the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and Advanced Placement (AP) tests, released a statement with three updates.

In order “to reduce and simplify demands on students”, the statement said, they would discontinue the optional SAT essay, discontinue the SAT subject tests, and invest in “a streamlined, digitally delivered test that meets the evolving needs of students and higher education”.

How has SAT worked so far, and how can these changes impact students from India?

The history of SAT

SAT as an entrance exam has existed for almost a century. It was originally derived from an aptitude test developed by Princeton University psychology professor Carl Brigham, which was administered to US Army recruits during World War I. The College Board later asked Brigham to develop a similar test for high school students applying for admission.

The first Scholarship Aptitude Test, as it was then called, was administered to 8,000 students in 1926. Today, around 2 million students around the world, usually in their junior or senior year of high school (11th or 12th grade), annually take the SAT to secure a place at an American university. The three-hour-long test includes multiple-choice sections for math, evidence-based reading, and evidence-based writing, along with an optional 50-minute essay.

The optional essay

The optional SAT essay, now being discontinued by the College Board, was introduced in 2005, ostensibly to “make writing more of a priority across the United States”, and give colleges access to original student writing.

While some welcomed the addition, saying it would “lead to real reform, particularly in high schools”, others criticised the “cosmetic repacking” of a test that they said was inherently flawed, in that it tended to favour high-income students.

Questions have persisted over the SAT essay’s objective of rewarding formulaic rather than creative writing, and its alleged handicapping of immigrants and international students. Several Ivy Leagues, liberal arts colleges, and state universities have not required the essay for years.

In its statement on the discontinuation of the essay, the College Board recognised “there are other ways for students to demonstrate their mastery of essay writing”.

It has been pointed out that the decision to scrap the essay section could be financial. Forbes estimated that as of September 2020, the organisation had lost $200 million from cancelled SAT tests – and doing away with the already unpopular essay section might be a cost-cutting measure.

The subject tests

The College Board statement also said that the SAT subject tests would be discontinued from June 2021, and noted that “the expanded reach of AP (Advanced Placement) and its widespread availability for low-income students and students of colour means the subject tests are no longer necessary for students.”

The SAT subject tests have existed since 1937, with 20 disciplines currently offered, including world history, literature, math, physics and latin. Students can take three SAT subject tests, which assess their proficiency of high school curricula, for $26.

The AP test, also run by the College Board since 1955 and now being promoted as an alternative to SAT subject tests, evaluates proficiency of college material and can be used for college placements. Each AP test, however, costs $95, raising questions about access and opportunity for low-income students and students of colour.

It also raises questions about systemic flaws in the College Board’s testing models, with their own data reportedly showing that Black and Latino students routinely score worse than white students on AP exams, just as they do on SAT.

Implications for Indian students

In 2019, the number of Indian students studying in the US surpassed 200,000, accounting for 18 per cent of all international students. Undergraduate students numbered 24,813, according to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange (IIE).

While international student enrollment in the US is estimated to have decreased significantly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, enrollment is expected to bounce back, as students have deferred rather than declined university offers.

The changes announced by the College Board could impact test-taking trends among students seeking to travel to the US in the coming years.

“The pandemic has changed the way American universities process admissions for international students. For admissions in 2021, universities waived the SAT and SAT subject test requirements completely and instead focused on the student’s past academic history and extracurricular activities, Mumbai-based education counsellor Karan Gupta told The Indian Express. “This taught universities that the SAT subject tests are redundant for students who are studying in international boards such as IB and A levels, as the syllabus is the same.”

According to Gupta, “For students studying of boards such as ISC, CBSE or HSC, AP exams make more sense, as they are more thorough, and more accurately demonstrate a student’s true potential.”

Kimberly Dixit, CEO and co-founder of education consultancy The Red Pen, said: “It is important to note two things about the AP exams. One, no college requires AP exams in the application process and, two, for Indian students in rigorous curriculum programmes, the AP is actually a less rigorous course. For example, International Baccalaureate Higher Level subjects require 240 hours of instruction, whereas the AP typically involves 100.

“So if you’re an IB student, the AP wouldn’t be necessary to demonstrate subject proficiency. The IB course is sufficient. When deciding what to do in response to the cancellation of SAT subject tests, it is important that students do not jump to the conclusion that they must now take APs. They should consider their school context, the feasibility of taking the test, and how much value it will add to their application.”

Dixit added that the College Board’s announcement is good news because “by prioritizing the AP exams, the College Board could make the test available more often. Currently AP exams are only offered in the month of May, which was anyway a tricky timeline for Indian students.”

She also expressed hope that the College Board’s promise of a “digitally delivered” test will “streamline the process for administrators and hopefully expand access to SAT for students everywhere. This is important in India when many domestic institutes are also accepting SAT now.”

There are currently 53 SAT test centres across India. With the possibility of AP exams becoming more popular among Indian students, the number of AP test centres in India is expected to rise from the current 16. AP tutoring and coaching classes can also be expected to become more widespread. The AP tests offer 38 subjects to choose from, as opposed to 20 SAT subject tests.

(Rya Jetha is an intern with The Indian Express)

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