Education Opinion

It All Sounds So Nice: David Coleman at the College Admission Conference

By Peter Gow — September 20, 2013 4 min read
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So, I’m a little confused.

I’m at the National Association for College Admission Counseling annual conference in Toronto, where on Thursday afternoon I spent about an hour listening to David Coleman, president of the College Board. He talked about the Board, where it’s going, and about the revised SAT, due to consume (presumably) our students’ Saturday mornings some time starting in 2015.

Lately the College Board has been putting a lot of its energy, and certainly a great deal of its rhetoric, into what seems like a rebranding, or at least a shift in brand emphasis. They’re all about access, now--it’s a word Coleman repeated numerous times.

And on the surface it sounded pretty good. I found myself tweeting Coleman one-liners, and even I couldn’t tell whether I was being ironic when I shared goodies like his suggestion that the new SAT, to be built around “curriculum-driven achievement tests,” is “an aspiration fulfilled.” He kind of implied it was our aspiration, a room full of college counselors and college admission folks. Is it, though? The dehumanizing aspects of the college admission process, about which Mr. Coleman worries, came up, and he wondered aloud, “How can we restore that humanity?” I wonder myself. He even said, the head of the outfit that gave the world mass standardized testing (and the idea that a test can be a singular measure of something important, like a kid’s worthiness to be a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist), “We don’t need more tests [for kids], we need more opportunities.” OK. And his closer: “Our commitment is not to to an exam, it’s to delivering opportunity to kids.” Wow. ‘Cause they sure deliver a lot of exams, too.

The potential of the new SAT induced a kind of giddiness. “The revised SAT ought to be a celebration of students’ finest work.” Yes, indeed-y, if we must have such a thing. It should “open roads to equity and excellence.” Of course! It’ll be an “open-er SAT that celebrates much more clearly the work students need to do in the first year of college.” I began to think, When this thing is launched, beware of being smothered by falling balloons or skewered by an errant skyrocket. Thursday’s edition of Coleman-speak was colorful, enthusiastic, and empathetic. I began to wonder whether I had been missing something all along; neither the College Board nor the Common Core, Mr. Coleman’s previous enterprise, are generally the stuff of such warm fuzzies.

There was some push-back in the room. A retired school counselor from Maryland stated that “in Montgomery County we close school after spring vacation. After that, all we do is test.” Some pointed questions were asked, one about whether schools that create barriers to Advanced Placement course enrollment are really so much about access, others about the time (and stamina) it takes to sit the test. Coleman hopes that the new SAT will be a test “that allows [students] to breathe.” And what about the notorious 25-minute essay, widely regarded as rewarding formulaic writing rather than considered, evidence-based exposition? Coleman shared a vision of a writing test requiring a response to a specific reading. He did not, however, respond directly to a question whether the new SAT will, like the forthcoming revision of the ACT, be offered on line.

In the end it was a lot to consider, or perhaps not very much at all. The revised SAT will be what it will be, and it will have the effect of narrowing certain parameters for many teachers; the more so if it is built around the Common Core, which seems so likely as to appear inevitable. For some teachers and maybe even students this narrowing will be felicitous, clarifying and defining, but for others it will feel like one more nail in the body of spontaneous, student-driven, and student-centered teaching. But that’s what standardized testing has always done--honoring external expectations and standards rather than the spirit of the child.

I guess that’s where Thursday’s presentation, for all Mr. Coleman’s warmth and passion, fell short for me, although I so want to see it differently. If the College Board’s core mission is “delivering opportunity,” I understand that there’s something useful, something absolutely essential, in making sure that every kid in every school has the chance to show and then fulfill his or her highest potential. If test scores can open doors, then let them be opened.

But I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that standardized test scores don’t feel to the vast majority of kids or to most teachers as though they unlock the doors of opportunity. There are kids whose fates are sealed by testing, and I don’t mean just the kids whose 710s keep them out of Princeton. Ask any kid whose “failing” school was closed or defunded based on test scores; ask their (former) teachers.

So here’s what I want to understand differently than I do: Can the College Board, riding the pale horse of testing, really be the knight in shining armor that Mr. Coleman seems to want it to be? Can the College Board create a testing regime that will truly honor the spirit of each individual student, that will truly (in Coleman’s words) celebrate “students’ finest work” even as it restores “humanity” to the college admissions process? I want to feel the giddiness, but it’s hard.

But if they can pull it off, I’ll be the first one to stand up and cheer like crazy.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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