SAT Story Is the Multiple Choice for Network TV News

By Mark Walsh — March 06, 2014 3 min read
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Which over-the-air network TV news shows aired reports on their main broadcasts Wednesday night about the overhaul of the SAT college-admissions test?

a. ABC’s “World News”

b. “CBS Evening News”

c. “NBC Nightly News”

d. “PBS NewsHour”

e. All of the above

The answer is “all of the above,” on a rare day when all five network news shows featured an education story that didn’t involve a school shooting or some other tragedy.

The SAT and the underlying story of access and equity in college admissions were enough to gain the thumbs-up from TV news producers for covering the College Board’s big announcement. (Among cable news channels, CNN did as well, but I’m not sure about Fox News or MSNBC since I couldn’t find video reports on their Web sites. Education Week covered the news in the College Bound blog here.)

Despite long-term declines, evening broadcast news shows still draw a lot of viewers. “NBC Nightly News” draws about 10 million viewers each night, followed by ABC with around 9 million and CBS with just under 8 million. The “PBS Newshour” draws a reported 1.3 million nightly viewers. By comparison, Fox News draws around 2 million viewers around the dinner hours (when the network news shows are on), while CNN and MSNBC each draw around 500,000 in those hours.

NBC’s report on the new SAT, by its education correspondent, Rehema Ellis, was the clearest, in my opinion, with snazzy graphics explaining the College Board’s plan to de-emphasize vocabulary words such as “prevaricator” and “sagacious,” and the planned return to the 1600 scoring scale (down from 2400 in the current test that includes a mandatory essay).

The NBC report had a one-on-one interview with College Board President David Coleman, and Ellis sat down with students and their SAT prep materials. (Here is a clip with Coleman. NBC didn’t break out video of Ellis’ full report.)

The “PBS NewsHour” was also comprehensive, devoting more than eight minutes to a packaged report and then a chat between co-anchor Judy Woodruff and “Newshour” education correspondent John Merrow. He added a restrained note of skepticism to Coleman’s plan to offer low-income students free test prep from Khan Academy and thus reduce the inequities of the multi-billion dollar market led by Kaplan and Princeton Review.

“If he’s trying to drive a stake into the heart of the test-prep industry, you know, good luck with that,” Merrow said. “They’re smart people, and I would predict their business would actually improve because they’ll be able to say, ‘Hey, there’s a new SAT, we can help you get ready for it.’”

“CBS Evening News” anchor Scott Pelley introduced his show’s report by calling the SAT the “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” a name it dropped years ago. The report by Jim Axelrod stressed competition with the ACT, which recently surpassed the SAT in the number of test-takers (a point made in most of the reports), and then interviewed the admissions director of Pitzer College in California, one of a growing number of institutions that does require either test.

“We basically did a study and found that there was absolutely no correlation between academic success on our campus and the SAT,” the admissions director says in the report. I’m sure Coleman was thrilled with that spin.

ABC’s “World News,” which rarely covers education policy stories, did lead its broadcast with correspondent Lana Zak’s story, which covered the basics.

ABC Entertainment News | ABC Business News

I’m betting it will be some time before all four network news shows cover an education story on the same day again. What are the likely candidates? A controversy over the Common Core State Standards? A federal No Child Left Behind Act rewrite? A new Race to the Top grant?

None of the above?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.