The SAT and the Hypocrisy of the College Board

BlameAccording to David Coleman, President of the College Board and architect of the redesigned SAT, most of you won’t know and shouldn’t have to know what ‘hypocrisy’ means because it’s a word we don’t use every day. I disagree, but let me help you out with that one anyway: a ‘hypocrisy’ is a pretense of having publicly approved beliefs that one does not really possess.

Why is that relevant? Well, the College Board unveiled some preliminary “blueprints” for the new SAT yesterday, and its members would like you to think that these changes are an act of benevolence (wait! SAT word!) kindness done for the students who complained that the current SAT is “too hard.” They would have you believe that your objections to the SAT’s guessing penalty, its essay, its vocabulary, and its critical reasoning component have shown them the light and revealed that, alas, the current SAT is a poor assessment of student achievement and predicted college success. But this is all pretense. The SAT is already a very good assessment—they know it, test experts know it, and you probably know it, too. That’s why students favor the ACT—it’s not apt to reveal their strengths and weaknesses as clearly as the SAT.

The real reason for the redesign of the SAT, however, is money. Over the past several years, the ACT has slowly been siphoning off SAT customers and in 2012 it surpassed the SAT as the most popular college admissions test, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars for the College Board. This ACT exodus is not because the ACT is a better test, but rather because the ACT’s marketing team was better at making students believe theirs is a fairer test, and that it was better at measuring where students actually were educationally. The SAT was criticized for being a tricks-based test, and the SAT honchos “sat” around and did nothing about the perception because at first it didn’t affect their pocketbooks, so why would they care? Until very suddenly it mattered a lot, and state after state began requiring students to take the ACT, not the SAT. And there went those all-important dollars. So, poor advertising and management has led us to the redesign of the SAT. In all fairness, any company (and make no mistake, the College Board is a multi-million dollar business) faced with a similar crisis would undoubtedly seek an immediate overhaul of their business practices and products. But would their executives deceptively pin the motive for that change on someone else?

When the changes to the test were divulged (sorry, they think that word is now too big!) revealed yesterday, Coleman was desperately looking for someone to blame for the aura of fear and intimidation surrounding the SAT. To no one’s surprise, that culpable (golly gee, there I go again!) blameworthy target turned out to be the test preparation industry: meaning people like me, and other SAT tutors. Nice try! “The culture and practice of test preparation that now surrounds admissions exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country,” he said. Apparently I’m also oppressing some of you. Me. The ex-public school teacher who has posted hundreds of pages of test prep for FREE on the PowerScore website. Coleman's public stance is very simply hypocrisy. The number one selling SAT prep book for the last ten years is The Official SAT Study Guide, published by none other than the College Board. Prior to that, the title went to 10 Real SATs, also produced by the makers of the SAT. And the College Board's own SAT preparation course is probably the best-selling course out there. They have been thriving from the very test preparation they condemn. The College Board itself created and exploited the mystery of the SAT, profiting from test materials, online courses, and the gossip-fed reputation of the college admissions juggernaut (oops!) beast. The test preparation industry, on the other hand, has always worked to illuminate the intricacies and secrets of test, alleviating the fear that surrounds it. Many of us are certified teachers with a background in education and a focus on student achievement. I spend many days each week conversing with other SAT tutors in online forums, and I have yet to meet one who chose this career for financial gain; rather, we are SAT experts because we enjoy the complexity of this test and we are passionate about sharing our knowledge with our students. Can the same be said for the College Board?

Finally, I’d like to point out the duplicity (darn it!) trickery of Coleman’s statements about the effectiveness of test preparation. At one point in his speech about test preparation, he says “it is time for an admissions assessment that makes it clear that the road to success is not last minute tricks or cramming.” But only moments later, he announces the College Board’s partnership with Khan Academy “to provide free test preparation for the world.” Well, which is it, College Board? Either test prep doesn’t work, in which case there is no need for it at all, or it does in fact help alleviate anxiety and boost ability and confidence, which is why you are seeking to offer it to everyone. Could it also be that by offering free test prep you are hoping to sway state governments into adopting your redesigned SAT as an exit exam assessment for the Common Core State Standards, of which you, Mr. Coleman, were also the lead architect? This new, highly debatable initiative for K-12 curriculum and evaluation goes into effect in 2015 and has been adopted by an overwhelming majority of states. Such a procurement (my bad!) victory would exponentially grow the non-profit College Board’s profits. And at the same time you can deflect criticism away from the College Board, which has certainly been criticized quite severely (and rightly so) over the years.

But, in truth, these are all self-serving statements for the sole purpose of manipulating public opinion. Outsmarted by the ACT, the College Board is now scrambling to score empty points in a PR campaign designed to rehabilitate a soiled reputation. They may claim that free online test prep videos will make the test more fair and that there will no longer be any secrets to the SAT, but I have yet to encounter a standardized test that didn’t have some secret nuances (when will I learn?) subtle differences or common shortcuts that were exposed by test preparation experts. I assure you that I will be here to help students in the future, whether they choose to prepare for the new SAT or the ACT. But, dear College Board, will your test-takers be there? Or have you now given them a valid reason to flock to the straightforward, time-tested ACT? That answer remains two years away, so in the meantime I can only hope that when the new test is fully revealed on April 16, we find such an excellent assessment that your blatant hypocrisy is overlooked.