According to the Boston Globe, the number of selective colleges requiring applicants to submit SAT IIs is in decline:

In the past year, Amherst College, Dartmouth College, and Williams College all have dropped the subject test requirement, taking a lead from Columbia University, which announced the new policy this spring. Duke University and Vassar College also no longer require the tests, often called SAT II.

The shift occurs amid a larger discussion in higher education about the value of standardized testing in admissions. Some colleges, especially less-selective private schools but also such public colleges as UMass Lowell and Salem State, have made the main SAT and ACT tests optional.

“We want to make the application process as fair to all students as possible,” said Mary Dettloff, a spokeswoman for Williams College. “We felt like we weren’t getting any valuable data from the SAT II scores to help us.

So if you’re planning to apply to schools where SAT IIs are optional, does this mean you should happily remove them from your testing checklist?

Maybe not so fast.

Let’s look a little closer at what’s going on here.

First, it is not a coincidence that these particular schools have all decided to drop the SAT II requirement at the same time. There is considerable overlap between the applicant pools Vassar, Dartmouth, Amherst and Williams, and any one of these colleges that continued to require SAT IIs would risk losing potential admits to its competitors. 

Amherst in particular has made a very prominent effort to recruit underprivileged students, and the other schools in this group can’t afford to fall behind. If schools are looking for reasons to admit such applicants, even ones with stellar transcripts, SAT IIs pose a problem. Because students in that category tend to come from weaker high schools that do not fully cover the material tested on SAT IIs, their scores tend to be correspondingly lower. Either that, or these students do not know to sign up for SAT IIs at all. (Yes, even in the Internet age, that is entirely possible.)

In addition, these scores put grades in context in a very blatant way — more overt than even the SAT. If a student has earned an A in, say, 10th grade Honors Biology at School X and scored 750 on the SAT, it can be reasonably assumed that the student has more or less mastered a significant portion of the material covered in a standard introductory biology course. If a student from school Y has also earned an A in 10th grade Honors Biology but has only scored a 580 on the SAT II, that suddenly casts the grade in a very different light. On the other hand, if no SAT II score is provided, then adcoms are free to assume that the two grades mean the same thing. 

Now, the most interesting thing about SAT IIs right now is that they are the sole group of College Board exams that has not been overhauled by the Coleman regime. While they do test conceptual understanding, they are more directly knowledge-based than any other College Board exams. If you do not know the content, there is no way to do well on them. The relationship is really pretty straightforward. 

Furthermore, the scoring system (10-point increments from 200 to 800) provides far less wiggle room than the AP exams do. Whereas it is possible, in strict numerical terms, to get the equivalent of a C or lower on a number of AP exams and still receive a 5, no such possibility exists on SAT IIs.

Yes, the scores are curved very substantially on some tests, but there is still a much wider range of scores; the difference between someone who has answered 70% of the questions correctly and someone who has answered 95% of the questions correctly is much starker than it is on an AP exam. 

Furthermore, there is no way to fudge essay questions or compensate for a serious weakness in one area with a strong performance in another, as is the case for AP exams. And unlike APs, SAT IIs are entirely non-holistic exams: even though they cover somewhat less advanced material than AP exams do, they do nothing but test the picky details that are necessary for basic mastery of a subject but that schools are increasingly likely to skip over (as I learned firsthand during the several years I tutored the French exam).

Essentially, SAT IIs are a throwback to the idea that a specific body of factual knowledge in core academic subjects is both necessary and desirable in applicants to selective colleges.

It was thus entirely inevitable that they would be marginalized.  

In that context, the Williams spokeswoman’s assertion that SAT IIs do not provide “valuable information” is better understood as a euphemism for the fact that lower/missing SAT II scores among some less demographically desirable applicants make it more difficult to recruit such applicants — which, incidentally, would also drive application numbers (and USNWR ranking) up and acceptance numbers down. 

Besides, if these tests truly provide no information, then why do colleges even allow applicants to submit them? Yet the move is to make these tests optional, not to stop applicants from submitting them at all. Such a move is not unheard of: if memory serves me correctly, at one point Sarah Lawrence refused to consider test scores at all. 

Tellingly, the schools that have the strictest SAT II requirements tend to be the most academically rigorous, as opposed to being merely extremely selective or prestigious.

MIT, for example, requires either Math 1 or 2, plus an additional science test. At Caltech, the requirements are even more stringent: only the Math II test is accepted, and the mid-50% of admitted students scored 790-800. (Granted, the Math II curve is quite large, but still.) I also recall that in one recent year, every entering freshman at Harvey Mudd, another super-selective engineering school, had scored an 800 on the Math II exam. 

To be sure, perfect scores on these exams alone will not get anyone admitted to these schools. Rather, they are a precondition for serious consideration. And there is a reason for that: students who have not mastered the basic material — and by elite engineering school standards it is basic material — that SAT IIs test would most likely struggle to do the work. Admitting such students would be doing them a disservice. 

In contrast, elite liberal arts schools — by which I mean all non-engineering schools, universities included — are much harder to get into than to graduate from. A good 90-95% of the entering students will receive their diplomas, regardless of whether they’ve mastered multivariable calculus or Spanish or economics or, to be very cynical for a moment, anything at all. (To digress for a moment, one result of growing up in a city with 40 institutions of higher education is that you learn early on that students are admitted to top colleges for a variety of reasons, and that the only thing an Ivy League diploma reliably indicates is that someone played the game well in high school. Outside of places like MIT, elite schools tend to be populated with well-off but basically normal above-average kids who happen to be very good at giving the system what it wants.)

In general, the most selective schools admit at most around 10% of their freshmen classes on primarily academic criteria, while the remainder of the class — though still highly academically accomplished, at least on paper — is composed of various special interest groups.

As I’ve written about before, at the undergraduate level, school is merely one purpose of a university, even if an institution is home to spoils of virtually unmatched educational riches. Elite colleges will manage to identify their quota of academic superstars, regardless of what tests they do or do not require. For the remainder of the class, they can afford to be flexible, particularly if doing so will increase both diversity (or at least the appearance of it) and selectivity. 

The problem is that colleges are trying to have it both ways: they are trying to make the admissions process more “fair,” but in reality they are making it even more head-spinning. Rules, or perhaps more accurately guidelines, exist, but they are largely tacit, used to guide admissions decisions but rarely acknowledged to the public.

The result is that at elite colleges, there is one set of rules for unhooked, not overly privileged applicants; another set of rules for highly privileged, hooked applicants (some of whom nevertheless would be unlikely to think of themselves as particularly privileged); and yet another set of rules for underprivileged, under-represented minority applicants.

And that’s not even factoring gender into the equation: at schools such as Brown, Vassar, and Wesleyan, female applicants are admitted at lower rates than male applicants are in order to maintain gender balance (and thus keep the number of applications up for both male and female applicants, and the admissions rate down). 

These issues are common knowledge, and yet schools continue to dance around them. 

Yes, from admissions officers’ perspective, this is a balancing act; trying to juggle so many sets of competing demands is not easy.

But at the very least, if colleges truly do not believe that SAT IIs have anything to offer, then they should stop considering them outright, full stop. That would not paint a particularly flattering picture of the regard in which admissions committee hold measurable academic knowledge as a criterion for entry into college, but it would also be both fair and transparent.

And that is precisely why it will never happen.