College & Workforce Readiness

Incoming College Board Head Wants SAT to Reflect Common Core

By Catherine Gewertz — May 16, 2012 9 min read
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One of the chief architects of the Common Core State Standards was named the next president of the College Board today and said one of his top priorities is to reshape the organization’s influential college-admissions test, the SAT, to better reflect the new standards.

David Coleman will assume his new duties on Oct. 15, replacing Gaston Caperton, who is stepping down after 13 years as the College Board’s president, according to an announcement from the New York City organization also known for its Advanced Placement program.

Until then, Mr. Coleman will continue his work with Student Achievement Partners, a group he founded with two others who served as lead writers of the common standards in mathematics and English/language arts.

A lead writer of the literacy standards, David Coleman founded a group that provides curriculum.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers led the initiative for shared standards, and facilitated the selection of writing and feedback panels that produced the standards, in consultation with teachers, content experts, states, and education companies such as the College Board and ACT Inc., in June 2010. (“Final Version of Common Standards Unveiled,” June 2, 2010.)

The College Board’s choice marks a significant milestone in the common-standards movement, which now affects nearly 90 percent of the students in the United States, since 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards.

With $360 million in federal Race to the Top funds, all but five states are collaborating, in two groups, to design tests for those standards. Public institutions of higher education have pledged support to the idea of using a “college-readiness” cutoff score on those tests to allow students to skip remedial work and enroll in entry-level, credit-bearing courses. Leaders of that effort have been careful to emphasize that the common assessments will be used for course placement, not college admissions.

A Big Shift?

Mr. Coleman’s hope of reworking the SAT could play a role in moving the standards from a set of guidelines used in college course placement to one considered in college admissions. That, to Mr. Coleman, goes to the heart of the standards’ intention.

“The common core provides substantial opportunity to make the SAT even more reflective of what higher education wants,” he said in an interview. “The real value here is that if the SAT aligns more to the common core, we won’t be giving an assessment at the end of K-12 that’s out of kilter with what we demand at the end of the day. All that does is encourage last-minute test preparation and sudden adaptation. The instrument should measure the steady practice of the work you’ve been doing.”

He noted, though, that since the College Board is a membership organization that includes K-12 and higher education, any change in the exam would be done “in partnership” with that membership base and would have to be executed gradually to preserve the validity of test results over time.

Reworking the SAT to reflect key shifts in the standards, however—such as focusing more on students’ ability to cite evidence for arguments and demonstrate conceptual understanding of key math concepts—represents a potentially huge change with far-reaching implications, some in education circles said.

“It’s like someone saying we are going to change the formula for the Consumer Price Index,” said one leader who asked not to be named because of a close association with higher education and the common standards. “If the College Board is thinking about a redesign that links to the common core, that would have to be a pretty big shift.”

Another area of focus for Mr. Coleman at the helm of the College Board will be finding ways to raise SAT scores even as the pool of test-takers grows more diverse. Each year when SAT scores are released, College Board officials note with pride that more traditionally underserved students are taking the test—a sign that disadvantaged students are aiming higher and possibly considering college. But such students also approach the test with weaker academic skills and tend to score lower.

Mr. Coleman said that one of his chief aims is to break that pattern by finding ways to better support teachers and students in SAT and Advanced Placement, so struggling students are better prepared to do well and promising underrecognized students are identified and encouraged to take on more rigorous work.

Role of Testing

The choice of Mr. Coleman drew a mix of applause and skepticism.

Robert Scott, the commissioner of education in Texas, who has known Mr. Coleman for more than a decade, described him as “one of the brightest minds out there, an absolute genius” in thinking about what skills and knowledge schoolchildren need to thrive in college and in good jobs. But the two men differ sharply on how to advance those changes; Texas pointedly opted out of the common standards because it objected to the use of federal incentives, such as Race to the Top dollars, to promote adoption.

Some education activists saw in Mr. Coleman’s appointment the risk of creating too much uniformity in curriculum and tests.

The move represents “the next logical step toward the College Board becoming the nation’s unelected school board,” said Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Boston-based organization that cautions against overuse and misuse of standardized assessments.

“They want to be a key player in designing curriculum and the assessments that measure it,” he said. “The K-12 marketplace is historically a fractured one, but with nearly all states adopting the common core, it is increasingly easy to sell national curricula, educational materials, and tests. Who elected the College Board? Where I live, we vote for our school board, and there are vigorous, contested issues around school policy. Who is the College Board accountable to?”

For others, the College Board’s new leadership offers the promise of an alignment between K-12 and college expectations that has proved elusive.

“This is the first time in many decades that the College Board has picked someone to head it who really understands K-12 curriculum and how it needs to connect to higher education,” said Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University professor who has written extensively on college readiness and serves as president of the California state board of education. “This could help [the College Board] have a bigger impact on K-12 curriculum in a way that reinforces the common core and helps link K-12 to college.”

Catherine Snow, a literacy expert and professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education who served on the validation committee for the common standards, said she is concerned that Mr. Coleman’s translation of the common standards into pedagogy often “oversimplifies and misinterprets” good practice. For instance, in videos and public appearances, he has focused heavily on the need to radically reduce prereading strategies in literacy instruction, something that has touched off intense debate among educators.

Mr. Coleman is “a powerful and effective figure in mobilizing what is clearly a step forward in thinking about academic standards,” she said, but she thinks it’s best that he move away from serving as a leading voice on how they should be put into practice.

“When the people who wrote the standards then jump in and do the direct instructional implications, they’re going to get tripped up. It’s hubris,” Ms. Snow said. “Maybe this is a safer place for him, where he is farther away from that dialogue.”

Including Teachers’ Voices

Mr. Coleman has been instrumental in building a set of learning guidelines that serve as “standards without standardization,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. She praised him in particular for ensuring that teachers were involved in drafting the standards, after their initial exclusion from those panels. “He’s always been very interested in what teachers have to say and how they react to what he and others have put together,” Ms. Weingarten said.

Because she sees Mr. Coleman as “the conscience of the faithful interpretation of the common standards,” Ms. Weingarten said she is concerned about who will fill that role once he leaves Student Achievement Partners.

“How do we ensure that all the implementation aspects—ensuring teachers’ voices, good curriculum, and the time and tools teachers need—are faithfully adhered to?” she said. “This could default into another testing protocol like No Child Left Behind. We need to make sure all of these things happen.”

With Mr. Coleman leading the College Board, higher education will have to be more engaged in learning about the common standards, said Jacqueline King, who is leading higher education engagement efforts for one of the two common-test consortia, the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium.

“It will be much easier to get higher ed.’s attention and get them to consider that [the common standards and tests are] truly a K-12 matter that has implications for them,” she said. “It will up the ante on the conversations and introduce new complexity into the discussion about its implications.”

Choosing a common-standards architect with “a reformer’s instincts and an entrepreneurial spirit” to lead the College Board will inevitably facilitate conversations about how the role of college-admissions exams could change in the face of the common assessments, said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based group that is managing one of the testing consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC and played a central role in the standards movement.

“What I see happening in PARCC in our partnership with higher education is that these conversations about what kinds of evidence, data, assessment they need to make decisions are happening in new ways,” he said. “It’s inevitable that these discussions will spill over into what this means for the SAT.”

A Changing Landscape

One of the questions he gets frequently from higher education, Mr. Cohen said, is whether the 11th grade common assessments—which aim to measure college readiness—will replace the SAT and the ACT. “I tell them that [the common tests] are [course] placement tests, not admissions tests,” he said. But the common core “prompts a lot of questions about tests and systems currently in place.”

That said, don’t expect the College Board to become “the implementation arm of the common core,” Mr. Cohen said. “It’s the colleges, not the College Board, that decide what they will use for admissions.”

Along with Susan Pimentel and Jason Zimba, Mr. Coleman, 42, has been leading Student Achievement Partners’ work to develop supporting materials for the common standards, including a set of “publishers’ criteria” intended to guide the development of instructional materials. Those documents drew fire, however, for what some viewed as wading inappropriately into pedagogy. They have also triggered an intense debate about the role of prereading in literacy instruction, since Mr. Coleman has advocated a radical cutback in the use of such strategies. (“Standards Writers Wade Into Curriculum,” August 10, 2011 and “Common Standards Ignite Debate Over Prereading,” April 25, 2012.)

Before founding Student Achievement Partners in 2007, Mr. Coleman and Mr. Zimba founded the Grow Network, which sought to use test data to help teachers guide instruction. They sold that network to McGraw-Hill in 2005. Mr. Coleman worked on education issues as a consultant to McKinsey & Co., a global, management-consulting group, and studied English literature and classical education philosophy at Cambridge on a Rhodes scholarship. While an undergraduate at Yale University, he taught reading to high school students in an after-school program. As the president of the College Board, Mr. Coleman will earn $550,000 annually, plus another $150,000 in performance-based compensation, he said.


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