Education Commentary

100 Years of Opening Doors

By George H. Hanford — October 11, 2000 9 min read
The College Board was not the product of a plot by elite colleges to close their gates.

Perpetually but unfairly accused of elitism and discrimination, of being nothing more than a gatekeeper, a tester, the College Board is preparing to observe the centennial of its founding later this month in New York City. But rather than being distracted by recent media recycling of such misguided indictments, the board will be celebrating “100 years of opening doors” at its national forum on Oct. 28-31, 2000.

The charge that the College Board has been using tests to keep the gates to higher education closed to all but a favored few is based on three propositions: that it was founded by elite colleges to keep students out; that its SAT was introduced to develop an intellectual elite; and that the SAT discriminates against women and minorities (except, somehow, Asians). All three are way off base.

The College Board was founded in 1900 in response to the insistence by secondary schools that private colleges in the Northeast agree on course requirements for admission. Prior to that time, each college had its own subject-matter requirements and its own entrance examinations. Agreement on what should be taught led to the introduction of common subject-matter entrance examinations administered by a college collective called the College Entrance Examination Board. The motivation was not simply to make things easier for the schools, but also to open up a variety of opportunities for higher education; not to exclude students, but to accommodate them. Thus, the College Board was not the product of a plot by elite colleges to close their gates. Its very first examinations, the result of pressure being put on colleges by secondary schools, were used to open gates.

The next step was to open them wider. The original “College Boards,” as they came to be known, were written examinations based on very specific syllabi that reflected the colleges’ agreements on carefully prescribed subject-matter content. This circumstance meant that students attending schools that did not offer the required syllabi-based courses were not able to apply to the few College Board colleges in the Northeast. To deal with this restriction, the College Board later introduced a series of “General Examinations” based on much less prescriptive subject-matter coverage. These examinations constituted the second major step in the board’s evolving role in opening up access to higher education. In both instances, tests were introduced not to obstruct opportunity, but to expand it.

While it is true that the College Board was primarily a tester for the first 48 years of its existence, it has been much more than that since it spun off the Educational Testing Service in 1948. Prior to that time, the College Board’s success in the then-new field of standarized, objective testing had gotten it involved in testing for a variety of purposes other than college admissions. The transfer to the ETS of these examinations unrelated to college admissions made possible what Frank Bowles, the board’s first president under the new arrangements, called “the refounding of the College Board.”

The resulting freedom from responsibility for these unrelated examinations gave the board the opportunity to take on other activities related to its primary mission: helping young people make the transition from secondary to higher education. It sponsored a series of colloquia in the 1950s that produced the first literature for the then-emerging admissions profession; the Commissions on English and Mathematics, which suggested what should be taught in those subjects at the secondary level; Project EQuality, which identified “reasoning” as one of the six basic competencies required for successful college study; the Commission on Precollege Counseling and Guidance, with its report “Keeping Options Open"; and Equity 2000 and other initiatives mounted during the presidency of Donald Stewart, to name but a few of the nontesting activities.

Founded in 1954, the College Scholarship Service pioneered the concept of student financial aid distributed on the basis of need.

Perhaps the most far-reaching of these endeavors was the College Scholarship Service. Founded in 1954, it pioneered the concept of student financial aid distributed on the basis of need. At a time when college enrollments were burgeoning as a result of the GI Bill and the emerging civil rights movement, distributing scarce dollars on the basis of need not only made it possible for colleges to spread their financial-aid dollars more widely, it also provided the rationale for the distribution of federal student-financial-aid dollars, which fueled the rapid expansion of higher education enrollments in the years following World War II. To suggest that the College Board was and is nothing more than a tester (and a gatekeeper) is ridiculous. Its CSS has had nothing to do with tests and continues to open gates to opportunity.

Yet the author Nicholas Lemann has resurrected in his recent bestseller the charge that the College Board’s SAT was developed to restrict access to higher education and continues to do so. In The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, Mr. Lemann documents James B. Conant’s interest in using the SAT to help create an intellectual aristocracy to replace the social one then being educated in the elite colleges of the Northeast. But the end result of Conant’s championing of the SAT was not simply the broadening of the pool of qualified applicants for colleges like Harvard, but the opening up of opportunities for higher education at all the nation’s colleges to students who would otherwise not have had them.

The SAT was an experiment in educational measurement that came on the scene in the mid-1920s. It carried a step further the loosening up of curricular requirements for college entrance that began with the board’s General Examinations. In the years preceding World War II, because performance on the SAT was not dependent on any particular subject-matter preparation, colleges were able to consider students from any school in the country—and did, using the SAT in the late l920s and 1930s for the consideration of applicants for financial aid. Its first use, then, was as an instrument that opened college gates, not closed them. And it was this success that encouraged Mr. Conant to champion the SAT.

The SAT came into more prominent use when the General Examinations became a casualty of World War II. When travel restrictions prevented the College Board from assembling “readers” to grade its written examinations, the multiple-choice SAT was waiting in the wings, ready to replace the free-response examinations. The great debate as to whether or not standardized, objective tests should replace written examinations as the instrument of choice in college admissions never took place. By the end of the war, the SAT had become the “College Boards.”

The media’s take on Mr. Lemann’s view of history suggests that James B. Conant foisted the SAT on colleges as a means of establishing and perpetuating his intellectual elite. Another way of looking at the same circumstances, however, suggests something quite different. Harvard’s use of the SAT in the 1930s and early 1940s may have supported Conant’s intentions, but it also opened up opportunities at Harvard, as well as elsewhere, that would otherwise have been unattainable. Ironically, however, when the GI Bill and the civil rights movement later dramatically increased both the proportion and the number of American young people aspiring to higher education, the SAT came to be perceived as an instrument not of inclusion, but of exclusion. It has been the target of unrelenting attacks ever since.

And so to the third proposition, that the SAT has served to exclude minorities and women from higher education. The irony here is that the test was in widespread use during the period of greatest expansion in college enrollments in the nation’s history.

For all the heart-rending stories of young people who have felt disadvantaged by the tests, there are heart-warming ones about students for whom the tests opened up unexpected opportunities.

From a nonmedia perspective, it can be argued that the SAT and its offshoot, the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, or PSAT, were instrumental in fostering that growth. For all the heart-rending stories of young people who have felt disadvantaged by the tests, there are compensating, heart-warming ones about students for whom the tests opened up unexpected opportunities. The former make great copy for the media; the latter are generally ignored. In particular, the Student Search Service, using the test-candidate populations from the SAT and the PSAT as its source, has helped (and is still helping) colleges identify college-able students who might otherwise go unnoticed. The SAT and PSAT have been used for the same purpose by other agencies. For many years, beginning in the 1960s, for example, the National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students used the PSAT to seek out academic talent and increase the number of African-American high school students going on to higher education.:

As long as minorities and women continue to score less well on the SAT and PSAT, however, the charge of discrimination is bound to persist. And the debate over the reasons for the score differentials will continue.

When I became president of the College Board in 1979, we had for a few years been collecting information about test candidates in addition to their names, addresses, and sex, and publishing that information in aggregate form, except for the data we had about their ethnic or racial backgrounds. This information showed that blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, on average, scored well below whites. Members of our staff who were African-American opposed the release of such data. They believed that, if published, the results would, as they put it, “harden stereotypes.” They felt, that is, that the data would confirm a widely held belief that minority students were not as smart as majority ones.

My own, opposing view was then, and is now, that the score differentials between majority and minority students are a reflection of the environmental and educational deficits this nation needs to erase.

To test the validity of my belief outside the College Board family, I met with leaders of the black and Hispanic communities to get their reactions. To my surprise, they were unanimously in favor of the release of aggregate scores of our several minority-candidate populations.

To suggest that the College Board should not be engaged in selling guidance and related services to college-bound students because it is their adversary, not their friend, is simply ridiculous.

This bit of history, I realize, will change no minds on the subject of whether or not the SAT discriminates. But the fact that the motivation behind the decision to release the scores of minority students—and, thus, to expose the extent of the presumed “discrimination"—was to call attention to the environmental and educational deficits these young people faced is further testimony to the College Board’s evolving goal of championing students’ interests, not thwarting them.

To suggest then, as the president of the Princeton Review does, that the College Board should not be engaged in selling guidance and related services to college-bound students because it is their adversary, not their friend, is simply ridiculous. (“Collegeboard.com Prepares To Launch,” May 17, 2000.) Through the establishment of Collegeboard.com, this vital, 100-year-old membership association is seeking to adapt a continuing advocacy of students’ interests to meet today’s circumstances.

George H. Hanford is the president emeritus of the College Board and lives in Cambridge, Mass.