College & Workforce Readiness

New College Board Head Makes Underserved Top Priority

By Catherine Gewertz — October 25, 2012 7 min read
College Board President David Coleman poses for a portrait last month in New York.
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The new president of the College Board launched his tenure last week with a call to use the organization’s clout to help historically underserved students reach their potential and find ways for all students to immerse themselves in academic “work worth doing.”

David Coleman’s Oct. 24 keynote speech at the organization’s annual conference here laid out a social-justice agenda that focuses on closing the race- and income-based score gaps that dog the SAT and Advanced Placement exams and on helping disadvantaged students get access to challenging academic work and find their way to college.

Under the 13-year tenure of Mr. Coleman’s predecessor, Gaston Caperton, the New York City-based nonprofit organization built its business muscle and pushed the reach of its signature programs to a more diverse array of students.

But even as those programs have encouraged more students to try new challenges, scores have flattened as the test pool has grown to include less-elite students, often with weaker academic preparation. Troubling gaps in access to the AP program remain.

Mr. Coleman, who took over as president on Oct. 15, said he wants the College Board to consider all students who take its courses and tests to be “within our care” and find ways to provide supports that help even the least-well-prepared take on challenges and do well.

“While some excuse that decline [in SAT scores] on the basis that more diverse students are taking the test, I believe we cannot take comfort in that explanation,” said Mr. Coleman, who is known nationally as one of the chief architects of the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts, which all but four states have adopted.

“If we are to be internationally competitive and achieve the values of this country, we must improve performance and diversity.”

Minority Underrepresentation

Mr. Coleman quantified his frustration by listing data points that show the stubborn gaps and problems. Eighth grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have been essentially flat for four decades, he noted. SAT scores, especially in reading, are declining, and minority students are underrepresented among the highest scoring.

In 1994, one of every 150 African-American students who took the SAT scored in the top 5 percent, a number that has only worsened in 2012, to one out of every 189, he said. Latinos fare only marginally better: In 1994, one of every 65 Latino students who took the college-entrance exam scored in the top 5 percent. Today, it’s one of every 87.

One in every 18 white students and one in every seven Asian students, by contrast, score in the top 5 percent.

The SAT has been criticized for being a proxy of socioeconomic status and wielding disproportionate weight in college admissions decisions. But in recent years, more colleges have begun to consider it optional, and evaluate applicants on a range of other factors.

Mr. Coleman cited a new College Board study of “undermatching,” in which many students—especially those from low-income families—choose less-selective colleges than they are qualified for. Since completion rates tend to be better at more-selective colleges, undermatching puts students at risk of not finishing college.

He pointed to data showing that low-income students who do well on the PSAT—and thus show “AP potential”—often don’t take those college-level courses. Other research, he said, shows that many students who score well on the SAT don’t enroll in college.

The remedy for the “national tragedy” of achievement gaps at the top performance levels, and the other underachievement dynamics, aren’t yet clear, Mr. Coleman said, but they are top priority on his watch.

One way he hopes to drive change is by sparking more inquiry into the dynamics behind the problems. The College Board does its own research, but it is on the brink of being able to provide its troves of data to researchers more easily and free of charge, he said.

‘Work Worth Doing’

He called on everyone in the broad College Board network who interacts with students—AP teachers, guidance counselors, financial-aid personnel, college-admissions officers—to play a part in “connecting students with opportunities.” He floated the idea of using AP “alumni” as peer counselors who reach back to current students to urge them to take on the challenge.

Mr. Coleman proposed that the guiding idea behind all the work of the College Board—and the 6,000 colleges, college systems, schools, and districts that are its members—should be connecting students with “rigorous work worth doing.” The phrase appeared 19 times in his hourlong address.

His vision for such work is that it focuses deeply on “what matters most” and encompasses all disciplines, not just mathematics and English/language arts. It makes students truly ready for good jobs and higher education. And it is for all students, he said, sparking applause from the audience of about 2,000.

“It is the only work that can accelerate students when they are behind,” Mr. Coleman said. “I believe excellence is the most democratic idea there is; that is, only by demanding excellence of all can we hope for equity.”

Mr. Coleman did not further define “work worth doing,” but tidbits in his remarks suggested that it would reflect the priorities of the common standards. Those guidelines emphasize deep focus on a few key ideas in math, and have sparked debate for not requiring all students to reach key milestones—such as completing Algebra 1 by 8th grade. The language arts standards emphasize reading more informational text and drawing on evidence in text to build argument, sparking fears in some quarters that the reading and writing of fiction could diminish in classrooms.

The College Board’s role in contributing to “work worth doing” is multipronged, according to its new president. It can work to ensure broad access to rigorous coursework like Advanced Placement and think about how similar challenges—at scale—can be brought to earlier grades.

He wants the organization to figure out new ways to offer support to students as they undertake those challenges. Maybe, he suggested, retiring AP teachers can harness technology to serve as tutors for low-income students.

Assessing Writing

The College Board must also “realign” its own assessments to reflect the goal of work worth doing by making exams worthy learning activities unto themselves, Mr. Coleman said.

“The College Board must take responsibility for the practice that our assessment inspires,” he said.

One way to do that, he said, would be to rework the writing portion of the SAT so that students are graded not only on their writing skills, but on the accuracy of the evidence and examples they are asked to provide as part of that writing. That would reflect a value on analysis, precision, and accuracy, which matter very much in college and work, he said. Another way to do that would be to emphasize academic vocabulary commonly found in complex texts, rather than endless lists of words most students “will never see again.”

Those remarks echoed the goal Mr. Coleman stated in an Education Week interview in May, when he first accepted the College Board job: aligning the SAT to reflect the common standards. (“Incoming College Board Head Wants SAT to Reflect Common Core,” May 16, 2012.)

Bolstering the goal of work worth doing involves not only coursework, student supports, and assessment, but also the college-admissions process, Mr. Coleman said. Even the work students do to gain admittance should be pursuits that reflect what we most want them to know, he said.

Typically, students write a personal essay as part of their admissions package, and such narratives or opinions have come to dominate the high school writing-assignment landscape as well, Mr. Coleman said. But what is most valuable in college and work, he said, is writing that puts forth arguments backed up by evidence and details.

Perhaps the College Board, he suggested, could work with its higher education members to see that an analytic essay accompanies college applications alongside the personal narrative, to show off students’ skill in using evidence to build argument. “That would be work worth doing, and practicing,” he said.

Supporting work worth doing also involves finding new ways to support students as they complete college, Mr. Coleman said.

Risk of Redundancy?

After the speech, College Board members had a range of reactions to Mr. Coleman’s ideas. Jonathan Wehner, the director of recruitment at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, said aspects of the speech were “pretty radical,” but he welcomed the new president’s general direction.

Audrey Y. Smith, the associate vice president for enrollment at Smith College, in Northhampton, Mass., said she viewed Mr. Coleman’s remarks as a welcome return to the organization’s core mission after years of business-building. “We’re about realizing the academic potential of all students,” she said.

The challenge of realizing his vision, however, tempered optimism in some quarters. One teacher, who declined to give her name because she didn’t want to be seen as unsupportive of the new president’s goals, said she spends her days trying to help AP students who enter her class with weak skills.

“It’s just so hard to fix parts of a system that aren’t under your control,” she said. “Every day I wish I could wave a wand and have every one of them come in ready for AP. But that isn’t reality.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2012 edition of Education Week as New College Board Head Makes Underserved Top Priority


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