The Failure of the SAT and AP Exams

Designed originally to enroll the best and brightest in universities, the SAT and AP exams are now being called to question.


Approximately 130 universities and colleges in California will no longer require the College Board’s SAT and ACT tests as of the upcoming 2022 fall semester, including UCLA, Cal Poly, and UC Berkeley. These schools have listed many reasons for doing so, upending a century-old system designed to enroll the best and brightest. Their primary objection to this system of standardized tests, however, centers on the lack of fairness surrounding a system that prioritizes learning test-taking strategies, rather than one emphasizing true ability, intelligence, and commitment. These same objections also apply to the College Board’s advanced placement exams. 

Every May, the AP exams are globally distributed to students currently enrolled in AP courses. There is an exam corresponding with virtually every AP class. According to the College Board, these tests serve to “measure how well [a student has] mastered the content and skills of a specific AP course.” Students, however, do not have to be enrolled in an AP course to take an exam. Millions of AP exams are completed every year, and nationally, over 1.1 million high school seniors completed at least one exam last year. The past decade have shown a steady increase in AP exam enrollment, but its popularity could be far greater if the exam fees were not incredibly expensive.    

The tests administered by the College Board cost a staggering $96 per exam, and many students take several AP tests. Those costs start to add up. The College Board offers lower-income students a discounted rate of $53 for each exam, but that rate is still unaffordable for many, emptying the families’ pockets of determined students with the hopes of attending college. 

AP exam fees are not the only obstacles for students seeking college admission. Similar to the SAT and the ACT, the AP exam tests a student’s test-taking skills, often honed by enrolling in the expensive test-prep industry where certified teachers offer students formidable strategies to maximize their potential when taking the tests. Test-prep classes can cost hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars. Of course, a student can choose not to pay these large sums of money, but according to several sources, including the College Board, test-prep coaches provide better results on the exam. Low-income students are faced with a disadvantage before the arrival of test day.  

While AP exams do not play a significant role in the college admissions process, the AP classes that allow you to be eligible for the exams do. College admissions officials study a student’s course rigor and they appreciate the challenges AP classes bestow. Now that the SAT and the ACT are irrelevant, however, the importance of AP exams could change. With the AP exams as the only standardized test left, it could soon fill in the role as the new and improved SAT. If so, the financial inequality of education will continue to deny opportunity to the impoverished students and their capabilities. 

Wealthier students will no doubt have an easier time accessing test-prep courses and paying for the exams themselves. But lower-income students may have to submit test scores that do not truly represent their academic potential when they are unable to afford the test-prep courses.   Even when students from families of meager means are able to assemble appealing college applications, they likely cannot afford the steep tuition costs, and must instead hope for scholarships. Full-ride scholarships, however, are extraordinarily rare, with less than 1% of each year’s incoming college freshmen receiving one. Partial aid is instead a much more common occurrence, but for financially-strapped students, partial aid is not nearly enough, often requiring loans to make up the difference. Indeed, the real culprit is the higher education system itself, which overwhelmingly tends to benefit wealthier students, while systematically adding financial disabilities for less affluent students.