College Board Enters Common-Test Market

By Catherine Gewertz — August 20, 2013 10 min read
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The College Board is redesigning four of its testing programs so they reflect the Common Core State Standards and can be used for accountability, a project that adds yet another player to the list of companies seeking to take on new roles in a shifting nationwide assessment landscape.

The New York City-based nonprofit announced last year that it would align its college-entrance exam, the SAT, to the common standards. But its plans have expanded to include three other products: ReadiStep, aimed at 8th and 9th graders; the PSAT, typically taken by 10th and 11th graders; and Accuplacer, used by colleges to determine course placement for incoming students.

Test redesigns are still largely in the discussion stage, according to David Coleman, who took over as the College Board’s president last October after serving as a chief writer of the common standards in English/language arts. The organization is talking with policymakers and educators in states at the K-12 and higher education levels, he said.

But the idea is to create a suite of tests that could serve as indicators of how well students are progressing toward mastering the college-readiness skills outlined in the standards in literacy and mathematics. States could use those tests as part of their accountability systems by 2014-15, Mr. Coleman said.

He wants the tests to play other roles, too: as an early-warning system, facilitating interventions for students who are behind; and as door-openers, identifying promising but under-recognized students and connecting them with more-challenging coursework and with supports that will aid them in applying for college.

In revising and repositioning a group of its tests, however, the College Board appears to be working—at least in the upper grades—on some of the same turf as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the two big groups of states that are using federal money to design tests in grades 3-8 and high school for the common standards.

And the College Board isn’t the only one working that territory: ACT Inc. announced last year that it would produce a brand-new suite of common-core tests that will span elementary through high school, include not only math and literacy but science, and be ready to use a year earlier than the consortium tests, which are slated for debut in 2015.

In that system, called Aspire, the ACT college-entrance exam will serve as the capstone, and the new middle and high school tests will replace the current Plan and Explore products, which are being phased out, ACT officials said.

Threat to Comparability?

Each new vendor entry into the marketplace for common-core assessments sparks debate. For some common-core skeptics and those opposed to a heavy emphasis on testing, moves like the College Board’s confirm their suspicions that the new standards will expand the assessment burden on students and serve as a vehicle to enrich assessment companies.

Proponents of the common standards worry that if private companies carve too many states out of the two consortia, key advantages of the collective work—a high, shared cutoff score and cross-state comparability—could be lost.

“If we have 10 or 15 different assessments, and states decide they’re going to set their own cut scores, we are going to be right back where we were pre-Arne Duncan,” said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington consulting firm. “I think people are underestimating how important common assessments are to common standards.”

The U.S. Department of Education, under Secretary Duncan, has awarded $360 million to the consortia working on common-core-aligned tests.

Some backers of the standards, though, are starting to argue that multiple tests won’t necessarily undermine the common core.

“There’s this narrative that somehow when states pull out of [a consortium], it’s a chink in the armor of the common core,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that supports the standards. But if states that leave choose assessments that are truly of high quality and reflective of the standards, then “perhaps we haven’t lost much,” he said.

Moves on Staff

Mr. Coleman of the College Board, in recent public comments, has urged acceptance of multiple players on the common-assessment landscape. At a recent ge Foundation conference in Orlando, Fla., for instance, he encouraged business leaders to embrace the “pluralism” of the evolving marketplace, in which some states will use consortium tests and others will choose different assessments.

“I think it’s OK that we may see some variety in assessment, as long as they’re coordinated together and put on a common scheme of measurement,” he said.

Comments like those, combined with moves by the College Board to lure away top talent from ACT, have prompted some in the field to view the organization’s moves as a way to gain ground in the long-standing competition between the two big purveyors of college-entrance exams, while also gaining market share in the common-core world.

“What you hear a lot is that, like ACT, they are making a play to be the high school common-core test,” said one Washington education activist.

The College Board hired Cynthia Schmeiser, a former head of ACT’s education division, in April to oversee assessment. It has since added other key ACT players to its roster, including Sherri Miller, who was an assistant vice president in ACT’s education division and served on both the literacy- and math-writing panels for the common core; Ranjit Sidhu, ACT’s former senior vice president for strategic initiatives; and Jim Patterson, who worked on literacy content for the Plan, Explore, and ACT exams and was an influential panelist on the common-core literacy-writing panel.

The College Board has also enlisted people with strong education connections in the Midwest, where ACT has traditionally been dominant.

Todd Huston, who now oversees state and district partnerships, is a former chief of staff in the Indiana education department. Jon Gubera, the College Board’s new head of state government relations, was Indiana’s chief accountability officer and associate commissioner for policy for the state’s higher education commission.

What’s more, the College Board opened an office a few months ago in Iowa City, Iowa, only a few miles from ACT’s headquarters. Many saw that move as a bid to facilitate competition. It’s easier to recruit staff members from ACT if they aren’t forced to relocate, said one assessment insider, and it’s also “a way of slowing down a competitor when they’re in heavy development mode.”

Like most sources consulted for this article, he would not speak for attribution because of his interests in maintaining working relationships in the field.

One education activist in the Ohio Statehouse said the College Board has stepped up its lobbying efforts in Columbus.

“In my experience, they are really, really pushing their lobbying front here in a way I haven’t seen in a decade,” the activist said. “They have people reaching out not just to state officials but to districts.”

Those efforts appear to be starting to pay off in a strong ACT state. Just recently, Ohio awarded the College Board a one-year contract to administer the PSAT to sophomores in 2014. Developments like that frustrate the common-assessment consortia, which are working hard to keep states in the fold.

“One of the consortia’s problems is we don’t have lobbyists to explain the assessments to legislators, and many testing companies do,” said one consortium official. “That puts us at a huge disadvantage in state legislatures.”

Peggy Lehner is one of the state lawmakers who has heard about the College Board’s plans through its outreach. The chairwoman of the education committee in the Ohio senate, she said that Mr. Gubera stopped by her office a few months ago and had a “fairly casual” conversation with her.

“He certainly did make a strong pitch, but I would hardly say it was a hard sell,” Sen. Lehner said. She noted, however, that the state school board, not the legislature, decides which tests will be used.

The board plans to use PARCC exams at grades 3-8, and might use them as high school end-of-course tests, but the board is examining its options at the high school level, said C. Todd Jones, who heads a board committee examining that issue.

“ACT’s advantage is they have a name brand that people feel comfortable with,” Sen. Lehner said. “But states have had far more opportunity to engage with the development of the PARCC assessment than they ever have with ACT, which is all done behind closed doors. We have a hundred educators working on the PARCC test.”

Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday said the College Board’s products are “certainly” one of the options he is considering, along with PARCC tests, as he looks ahead to assessing the common core.

Oklahoma state Superintendent Janet Barresi said her state will invite both the College Board and ACT to make presentations this fall to a state Senate committee charged with producing a study of testing options. Oklahoma has announced that while it still belongs to PARCC, it will not use those assessments.

Oklahoma will issue a request for proposals for tests in grades 3-8, she said, and will modify its current high school tests, too. She invited Mr. Huston of the College Board to Oklahoma for a meeting a few months ago and came away interested in the organization’s new emphasis on using its tests as early-warning and diagnostic tools to help students.

The prospect of giving up cross-state test-score comparability bothers her, however. Ms. Barresi said the state is looking for a way to get that benefit even as it explores using nonconsortium tests.

Opportunity Is Key Goal

Mr. Coleman disputed the view that business interests are driving the College Board’s common-core testing plans. The project, he said, is fueled by the nonprofit’s social-justice mission, something its board of directors made paramount in hiring him.

“This is about seeing assessment as a starting point for opportunity,” he said. “The measures we are watching are things like can we change the number of low-income students going to college. How many students are taking our exams is much less interesting from a mission perspective. Nothing’s worse than being a nonprofit without a social return, merely selling tests and not changing students’ opportunities.”

The hiring, in particular, of Ms. Schmeiser, who has a reputation as a passionate advocate of rigorous coursework, has prompted speculation that the College Board might move into offering middle school courses. Mr. Coleman did not rule that out.

“We need designs for good courses,” he said, guided both by K-12 and college faculty members. “The hope that assessment alone will shape instruction is wrong. As we think about courses, we may think about middle school as well.”

Revisions in the four College Board tests will be guided by emphasizing skills associated with college success, Mr. Coleman said, such as citing evidence when writing and mastery of vocabulary most commonly used in college and good jobs. The revisions are being shaped jointly with college faculty members, admissions officers, K-12 teachers, and guidance counselors, he said.

Mr. Coleman said he wants the kinds of items on the tests to mirror good classroom instruction.

The goal of the revised testing system, he said, is not just to gauge students’ learning, but also to use test data to provide supports and interventions that help them move ahead.

As an example, he pointed to a new project that sends letters directly to students who scored high enough on the PSAT to make them good candidates for Advanced Placement courses. Previously, such “AP potential” notifications went only to the schools.

‘Powerful Designs’

The College Board has also begun following up those letters with waivers of college-application fees when those high-achieving PSAT students are juniors in high school, something that takes the support of its higher education members. That move is based on research showing that application fees can be a big deterrent when low-income students are applying to college.

Mr. Coleman sees the College Board’s role in the common-assessment world as helping to clarify what achievement measures prove most useful, a process that should culminate not in expanding the number of tests in the field, but reducing it to fewer, top-notch tools.

“It will take some time to come up with the most powerful, elegant designs for secondary assessments,” he said. “Almost no one is pleased with the current structures. It’s OK if it takes some time to find the best solutions. And I think the College Board needs to be part of that conversation.”

Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2013 edition of Education Week as College Board Enters Common-Test Market


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