May 16, 2019
The College Board was at a crossroads in 2012 when its long-time leader Gaston Caperton stepped down. Throughout its history, the SAT had been the most widely used college admissions exam with a comfortable margin between it and its closest competitor, the ACT. However, in the 2000s, the ACT began cutting into the SAT’s lead. Even after increasing the number of test administrations for two consecutive years in an effort to protect its market share, the ACT surpassed the SAT that year as the most popular college entrance exam in the U.S. for the first time in the test’s history.
At the same time, more and more colleges were beginning to adopt “test optional” admissions procedures, meaning that they were giving prospective students the option of submitting their SAT or ACT test scores or not. In making this decision, officials at many of these schools questioned whether college admissions tests, and especially the SAT, live up to their billing as an accurate measure for predicting whether a student will succeed in college.
To combat the threat to its role in the college admissions process, the College Board chose a new leader with a plan for ensuring that the SAT would once again be the predominant college admissions exam in the country. As a replacement for Caperton, the former West Virginia governor who led the organization for 13 years, the College Board chose David Coleman, who had served as one of the lead writers of the Common Core Standards, the then-new K-12 education standards that 45 states initially adopted. The new president and CEO had impressed the organization’s board with what he later described as his “beautiful vision” of overhauling the test by 2015 to align with the standards he co-wrote. This alignment would mean that states could use the SAT as the high school accountability test that 11 graders are required to take. In other words, all high school juniors in those states would be required to take the exam, no matter what they planned to do after graduating.
Why would this be a selling point to states? And why would the College Board move in this direction?
The number of standardized tests that high schools had to offer because of increased state accountability efforts in the late 1990s and then federal requirements in No Child Left Behind created test exhaustion. States wanted to kill two birds with one stone by using tests that students were already taking as their accountability tests. The ACT had been the natural candidate because it has a more straightforward structure than the SAT and is perceived to test content knowledge, while the SAT is said to test a student’s aptitude for college with questions that aren’t tied to the courses they are taking in high school. By 2012, 9 states paid for all juniors to take the ACT, compared with only one state signing a similar contract with the College Board.
For the College Board, making deals with states would help blunt ACT’s momentum and give the organization the opportunity to reestablish its dominance over the college admissions test market. In addition, it would ensure that students were required to take the test, whether or not they were applying to schools that required them to submit test scores.
Under Coleman, the College Board went on a warpath to put his plan in place, lobbying states aggressively to require their eleventh graders to take the SAT. According to the College Board’s 990 tax forms, the organization has doubled its federal and state lobbying expenditures since Coleman took over.
For example, from July 2015 through June 2016, the College Board spent $67,492 on state level lobbying in Colorado, which flipped from the ACT to the SAT in the 2015-16 academic year. Among other things, the organization lobbied to defeat a bill in the state legislature that would have given Colorado school districts more flexibility to choose which 10th and 11th grade accountability tests they wanted to administer. Had the bill passed, the districts could have chosen to require students take the ACT over the SAT.
From a business standpoint, Coleman’s campaign appears to have been successful. In 2018, the SAT reclaimed its testing dominance in large part because of its efforts to secure state contracts. Eight states now require juniors to take the SAT, three of which flipped from requiring the ACT. Colorado’s switch from the ACT to SAT resulted in a 10 percent spike in the overall number of students who took the SAT in Colorado in the course of a single year. Aside from the eight states that mandate the SAT, a number of others foot the bill to either offer the test to juniors at no cost or require that students take either the SAT or ACT but leave it up to districts to decide which test to offer.
And the College Board has signaled that it’s going to be even more aggressive. It recently recruited Paul Weeks, the architect of ACT’s state testing strategy, away from its rival organization. Stealing Weeks away from ACT was a major coup, not just because of his experience working with states but also because he has been a thorn in the College Board’s campaign. For example, while at ACT, Weeks, who is now a senior advisor for business partnerships at the College Board, filed an official protest with West Virginia’s Department of Education over its decision to sign an exclusive testing contract with the College Board. Noting that ACT was the only bidder that “adequately addressed WVDE’s requirement for an assessment that measures science,” he questioned whether ACT had been the victim of “vendor bias.”
“If the proposals had been evaluated consistently and equally, College Board would have received a non-qualifying score,” he wrote in a letter to state’s Education Department. Earlier this year, West Virginia’s state legislature approved a bill that would have allowed individual counties to administer the ACT rather than the SAT, if they wished. However, West Virginia’s Governor, Jim Justice, vetoed the bill in March, arguing that it would violate the Department’s contract with the College Board and subject the state to costly litigation.
While Coleman’s plan to align the SAT with Common Core standards made business sense, the organization’s roll-out of the new exam has been troubled at best. From the moment he took the reins at the College Board, Coleman was in a hurry to get the new test out to prevent ACT from locking up states. Some long-time College Board officials, who complained that Coleman’s timeline was unrealistic, were let go. Eventually, Coleman relented and pushed the redesigned test’s release back a year. But even then, the organization rushed out the test without making adjustments to the math section that external reviewers had recommended. The reviewers said that the changes were necessary to ensure clarity and fairness for all test-takers, including students from low-income and minority backgrounds, as well as those who don’t speak English as their first language.
In addition, the College Board “failed to properly secure questions for the new test, leading to “a massive security break earlier this year” that “exposed about 400 questions for upcoming SATs,” according to an investigation by Reuters. With those questions taken out of circulation at least temporarily, the organization has been forced to recycle past versions of the new test, giving previous test takers a major advantage if they take it again. Meanwhile, the organization is facing a class action lawsuit, charging it with negligence for using recycled questions on its tests.
Things were going so badly for the College Board in 2016 that Coleman took the unusual step of apologizing to college admissions officers and high school college counselors. It was a bad year, and I’m sorry,” Coleman said at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s annual conference that year, according to Reuters. “It’s no good having a vision, if you don’t deliver.”
But the biggest problem is the vision itself, according to critics of the College Board, including some of its former long-time employees. Making the SAT align with the Common Core standards undercuts the very purpose of the test: to assess a student’s innate aptitude for college. As testing expert Richard Phelps has written, tying the SAT to curriculum transforms it from an aptitude test to “a high school achievement test.” That shift makes the test “less useful to college admissions officers, since information gained from the retrospective test will duplicate data they already have, such as grade point average and class rank,” he wrote.
Is it any wonder then that the number of schools going test optional has jumped dramatically in recent years: 40 schools announced test optional policies from spring 2018- spring 2019 alone, including the University of Chicago. And the president of the University of California system, which educates about 252,000 students, recently commissioned a task force to review the system’s use of standardized test scores in admissions. Schools haven’t beat around the bush when discussing their rational for going test optional, either. In an interview, George Washington University’s president said, “We know that the best predictor of college performance is high-school performance — not the SAT,” and the senior vice president of enrollment management at DePaul University wrote in an e-mail to the Washington Post that “most research shows [test scores] add only the tiniest bit of predictive power as we attempt to figure out who is going to succeed in college."
As more states have signed contracts requiring their eleventh graders to take the SAT, the SAT’s value in college admissions is declining. The College Board clawed its way back on top of the college testing market, but at what cost to its value to colleges and universities?
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