College Board Delivering Opportunity: Winners and Losers

Today the College Board, with all due fanfare and a corresponding webcast watched by thousands, announced upcoming changes to the SAT, which will go into effect with the October 2015 PSAT and then the Spring 2016 SAT. During this hour long speech, not only did College Board president, David Coleman, announce changes to the SAT but he set the tone once again for the direction he is planning on taking the global multi-million dollar non-profit organization.


Since you can read in articles and newspapers across the internet the specifics of the announced changes to the SAT (a bunch of links are at the bottom), I thought instead to give you the benefit of my perspective on the impact of the changes by pointing out the winners and losers of the day (as I see it based on the information currently at hand which is admittedly incomplete).

First, let’s look at today’s winners:

First Place: Khan Academy

The day belonged to Khan Academy, who scored a coup by partnering with the College Board to provide free SAT preparation. While the details of what that partnership will look like are vague, early indications are that the College Board will/has provided official practice tests and questions to Khan Academy. This is a departure from decades of policy. College Board has historically only made its questions available in books they sold or on their website. Even today you can only download one SAT for free from CB, to get more would require either great google skills or spending $26 – $79.

The Khan Academy partnership will allow KA to reproduce official questions and then make instructional videos and explanatory videos and integrate those SAT items into their online learning system. This is an intriguing partnership because it has potential to broaden access to real SAT practice (not necessarily preparation) materials. I don’t think it will do as much to disrupt the test prep industry as Coleman would like to believe, but it’s a good start if they do it right. You can check out the conversation between Sal Khan and David Coleman here.

“This will be the only place in the world and free to the

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world, besides on our own website, that students will be able to encounter materials for the exam that are surely focused on the core of the math and the literacy that matters most. We will partner with the Khan academy to ensure the quality and validity of every item, every practice item. And there will be no other such partnerships.”

Second Place: College Board

College Board accomplished a lot today, not only did they announce substantial changes to the SAT but while doing so managed to put on the white hat Olivia Pope style, and cast themselves in the role of hero. The speech, in fact, seemed like something Pope would have created. There was a certain artistry in how while criticizing his own test, David Coleman took shoots at his rival college admission test, the ACT.


In addition to flinging zingers at ACT, he also took clever shots at the test prep industry while trying to avoid any cast-offs falling on his beloved SAT. Mr. Coleman pointed out repeatedly that paying for test prep advantaged certain students yet always with carefully worded statements that avoided implying that test preparation was effective. And he accomplished his attacks on the College Board’s two biggest foes while framing the entire conversation with the marketing line of “Delivering Opportunity.”

“The real news today is not just the redesigned SAT but the College Boards renewed commitment to delivering opportunity.” – David Coleman

If the College Board delivers on its promises of much greater support for low income students, this day has the potential to be a watershed (a teeny, a-teeny.. this is me shedding Nipsey Russel tears for vocabulary) moment for college access and equity. CB listed a grand set of initiatives and changes that would, as Coleman put it, ” propelling students to opportunity.” Those initiatives included various outreach projects designed to provide qualified low income students with information and engagement in the college selection and going process. Specifically Mr. Coleman cited

– Personalize mailers with personalized financial aid guidance for high-achieving low-income students

– Fee waivers for qualified low-income students to apply to colleges

– Apply to 4 or More campaign to help ensure that counselors encourage application to 4 or more institutions

– Personalized online guidance to support students following the PSAT and SAT

Let’s all hope that this all comes to fruition, because it has great potential. In addition to the positive vibes that these announcements generated for CB, many of the talking points put forth the notion of the new SAT aligning more with high school curriculum and AP programs and thus providing greater access to college. I think this is a masterful stroke since again it fosters the impression of CB products as the gateway and certification of college readiness. Well played College Board.


Third Place: Low income students

Low income and under-represented students have become the focus of many initiatives in education. Not only is the College Board focused on them but so is the Whitehouse. It’s nice to see that organizations are finally taking note of the inequities and working actively to address them. The greatest question here will be how are programs implemented at the high school level? Will guidance counselors and teachers know how to guide students to Khan Academy resources, will students and their families have the information, time, and ability to take advantage of these opportunities? Only Miss Cleo knows.


“Once the test is over the real work of begins.” – David Coleman

Now let’s look at who lost today.


Biggest Loser: ACT

Today the College Board cast the proverbial (a-teeny .. a-teeny) gauntlet. David Coleman sent shot after shot across the bow of the ACT. First he cited flaws in both tests but specifcally mentioned that he was fixing the flaws in his test. Next he attacked most of the structural advantages that the ACT holds. He removed the guessing penalty aligning the scoring with the rival test and removing a major test prep weapon, he made a strong argument that the new test’s content will be less coachable, he made the SAT essay optional like

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the ACT essay has always been, he made the SAT shorter than its rival assessment tool, he announced a digital option to launch only one year after a digital ACT option, and finally he reaffirmed in our mind that College Board is the oldest consortium of colleges and not just a testing agency and thus the access to colleges is an advantage the ACT might not be able to match. He did everything he could to combat the loss of market share except offer the SAT for free and thumb his nose at our friends from Iowa.


“It is time to admit that the SAT and ACT have become far too disconnected from the work of our high schools.” – David Coleman


Second place: Test prep companies

While the jury is still out on how coachable the new SAT will be (tune in April 18th after my team has had time to vivesect the new test), Mr. Coleman did all he could to make it seem like nothing short of 12 years of Common Core curriculum and a few hours on Khan Academy would prepare you for the test. While it’s not true that the test will not be susceptible to test preparation, it certainly will influence the perception of the buyers of test prep services. How many schools who currently hire test prep companies will forego that once the new SAT is launched? How many middle income families will choose to have their child use Khan’s free online videos rather than hire a tutor that might stretch their budgets?


“We also been listening to students and their families for whom these tests are often mysterious and foster unproductive anxiety. They are skeptical that either the SAT or ACT allow them to show their best work. And too many feel that the prevalence of test prep and expensive coaching reinforces privilege rather than merit.”

“It’s much less about tricks, about mysterious things than an open exam that celebrates good work and the work you’ve done in your high school”

– David Coleman


My fear is that this may actually exacerbate the discrepancy in scores as low income families buy into CBs message and solely rely on the free resources at Khan Academy and wealthy families hire individual tutors to teach their children in person (using not only the Khan material but also material created by experts like myself who’ve spent over 20 years analyzing College Board tests and devising ways to take advantage of every possible nuance).


“We must not take responsibility for the practice our assessment inspires” – David Coleman


Despite these possibilities, test preparation companies are entering a period of flux that will probably shake up many of the smaller companies that might rely on middle income families or contracts with schools. Additionally, by partnering with Khan, CB has provided some measure of leveling the playing field by ostensibly providing easy open access to information about the test years before its normally available. Typically, any change in a major admission test comes with a corresponding boom in the test prep industry, this partnership with Khan has the potential to minimize the “new test panic.”


“The culture and practice of test preparation that now surrounds admission exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country.”

“The first step we take today in redesigning the SAT is complete openness.”

– David Coleman


As additional information becomes available (full test in the new formatted are slated for release on 4/16) I’ll keep you in the loop and share my thoughts here or on twitter. In the meantime check out these articles and sites for more information:

  • Michael

    Interesting post Akil. I don’t see test prep companies losing at all despite what Coleman says. Change brings uncertainty and uncertainty will add to the anxiety levels of upper middle class and wealthy parents; they will continue to use the high price tutors to secure some additional advantage for their children.

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