Education Opinion

The College Board’s Access Rhetoric: I’m Listening

By Peter Gow — September 27, 2013 4 min read
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Yesterday was the big day, when the College Board released its summary of research on scores and college readiness for the Class of 2013.

But I scanned the press release in vain for the three-digit numbers. You know, those numbers somewhere around 500 that represent the “average” scores on the Critical Reading, Mathematics, and Writing sections. But the numbers, usually the focus of this momentous day, were absent. Fortunately, a single click into the Boston Globe later gratified my curiosity in that direction, complete with subdued ritual hand-wringing over the usual tiny point drops.

Lately I was a bit hard here on College Board president David Coleman. His presentation at the 2013 National Association for College Admission Counseling conference last week struck me--and others in attendance--as being a bit disingenuous. He kept talking about “access,” “opportunity,” and equity, things to which the SATs are often regarded as barriers. Today’s press release reiterated, in emphatic terms, these same themes.

It’s true that for a lot of kids, and I’ll own that many of these kids are at selective independent schools as well as in affluent communities from coast to coast and increasingly around the world, these tests do feel like barriers. When you’re aspiring to just the handful of colleges your community regards as worthy, test scores tend to matter in ways that our culture has imbued with a particular dark magic, even as we have ginned up a lively and highly profitable industry that offers counter-spells, or at least test-taking tips. Perhaps through little fault of the College Board--a sentiment to which participants in the NACAC Special Interest Group meeting on “AP/Non-AP” subscribed--these tests have taken on a kind of monstrous power and importance, far out of proportion even to their actual impact on the most selective colleges’ admission process.

There are barriers and there are barriers. For a far larger mass of kids than those agonizing over their early application to Brown, simply getting to college and being able to pay for it involve cutting through a nearly impenetrable nexus of complicating factors. For plenty of kids outside the tonier parts of the metropole it is a huge challenge simply to find out about colleges--what they are and what they offer--and then to navigate the application process and figure out how financial aid works. As the College Board certainly knows far better than I do, this stuff, which is second nature to the suburban and urban upper middle classes, gets in the way for thousands and thousands of able and deserving students.

I ended my post on David Coleman’s NACAC presentation on a note of cynicism-tinged optimism, hoping (against hope, maybe) that the College Board might really find a way to use its power as a force for good. Lord knows, they have the resources.

It seems the College Board might really be shifting their emphasis as well as their rhetoric. They are genuinely alarmed, as we all should be, at the failings their testing reveals--only 43 percent of tested students prepared for college, vast numbers taking the test but not going on to college. If there are able, invested kids whom the College Board’s efforts to aid with fee waivers and information can propel to the next level, then I’m a fan. If all of their initiatives to support underrepresented and underserved populations are going to become the main focus of their attention, then I’m a fan.

The real test will be not what the College Board can do to shift its active mission from delivering tests to delivering opportunity, but to see whether the cause will be taken up by the rest of our society. Are we just hopelessly fixated on test scores and competitive college admissions, our perpetual bourgeois opera of tragedy and triumph with every child and every parent in a starring role?

It’s not just affordability, it’s access in its most basic form. It’s not a stretch to wonder whether folks in the upper socioeconomic reaches might actually fear the College Board’s intensified devotion to this cause, which might just expand the pool of truly capable applicants to the most competitive colleges. One might wonder whether the test prep industry, so good at staying one jump ahead of the College Board, can find the will expand its pro bono work to truly level the playing field between haves and have-nots.

As a society we have ceded to the College Board enormous power, arguably for specious reasons. Maybe the time has come to take some of that power back, or at least to allow it to be redirected toward the work that the Board and its leaders have stated this week that they wish to be doing.

There’s still a strong argument to be made that standardized testing is but one limited and often flawed measure of a child’s potential, and those, like the good folks at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, who stand opposed to the overuse of testing are onto something important that must be part of the national conversation. But for today, at least, I’m going to offer David Coleman and the College Board at least my quiet applause. Rather than focusing on test scores, their recent pronouncements have focused on kids.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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