Forbes

The SAT Fails Its Big­gest Test

- By Susan Adams

The Col­lege Board, owner of the SAT, is a bil­lion-dol­lar com­pany fac­ing an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis: fail­ing to con­nect stu­dents to suc­cess and op­por­tu­nity in an Amer­i­can sys­tem of higher ed­u­ca­tion that was al­ready strug­gling be­fore the pan­demic.

The Col­lege Board, owner of the SAT, is:

A a bil­lion-dol­lar mo­nop­oly

B not con­nect­ing stu­dents to suc­cess and op­por­tu­nity

C fac­ing an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis

D all of the above

Chaos. That’s the ef­fect Covid-19

has had on Amer­ica’s sys­tem of higher ed­u­ca­tion, which was al­ready strug­gling be­fore the pan­demic. One need look no fur­ther than the cur­rent state of af­fairs at the Col­lege Board, long re­garded as an im­pen­e­tra­ble fortress among the ivory tow­ers. Its core prod­uct, the SAT, has set the stan­dard for col­lege ad­mis­sions for more than five decades. Few re­al­ize it, but the New York City–based or­ga­ni­za­tion that of­fers the SAT and Ad­vanced Place­ment tests is a non­profit that op­er­ates as a near­monopoly. Its tests, which have a stran­gle­hold on their stu­dent-cus­tomers, fuel more than $1 bil­lion in an­nual rev­enue and $100 mil­lion in un­taxed

sur­plus. It has $400 mil­lion in­vested with hedge funds and pri­vate eq­uity, and its chief ex­ec­u­tive, McKin­sey-trained David Cole­man, 50, pulls down com­pen­sa­tion of al­most $2 mil­lion a year. But fortress Col­lege Board is un­der at­tack. “Shame on them,” says Anne, a mother of two teenage girls in Raleigh, North Carolina. “If the Col­lege Board cared about the well­be­ing of stu­dents, they would shut down the test.” Her 17-year-old has been try­ing to take the SAT since the spring, but all three of her test dates were can­celed. More than 1 mil­lion stu­dents are in the same boat.

“Such in­com­pe­tence and reck­less­ness!” posted Stacey Falk Fein­sil­ber on the Col­lege Board’s Face­book page. Her daugh­ter Han­nah got three con­tra­dic­tory emails over the two days be­fore her Au­gust 29 exam at a Tumwa­ter, Wash­ing­ton, high school. The fi­nal note can­celed the exam less than 12 hours be­fore it was set to be­gin. “Any lawyers out there in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing a clas­s­ac­tion suit against the Col­lege Board?”

Frus­trated stu­dents and apoplec­tic heli­copter par­ents aren’t the Col­lege Board’s only prob­lems. The non­profit and its SAT have long been crit­i­cized as per­pet­u­at­ing a lop­sided sys­tem that fa­vors the af­flu­ent. The Col­lege Board pro­claims that its mis­sion is “to con­nect stu­dents to col­lege suc­cess and op­por­tu­nity.” Yet its own data show that Black and brown stu­dents score lower on both the SAT and AP ex­ams than do whites.

But it’s the Board’s in­abil­ity to safely adapt its op­er­a­tions to the pan­demic that has prompted cus­tomers to opt out in droves. Since March, more than 500 col­leges, in­clud­ing every school in the Ivy League, have joined the grow­ing “test op­tional” move­ment. All told, more than 1,600 four-year schools will not re­quire scores for ad­mis­sion in 2021, and a grow­ing num­ber are be­com­ing “test blind,” mean­ing they won’t con­sider scores at all.

For many stu­dents and col­leges, the test­ing ex­o­dus will make 2021 one of the most be­wil­der­ing ad­mis­sions cy­cles ever (see side­bar, page 141). The dis­rup­tion may not be tem­po­rary. Prior to the pan­demic, the Board of Re­gents of the pres­ti­gious Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia sys­tem, in the state with the largest share of the na­tion’s SAT tak­ers, had con­sid­ered whether to get rid of the test. The Re­gents were moved by the data on dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents. “I be­lieve this test is a racist test,” said Re­gent Jonathan Sures dur­ing a UC con­fer­ence call. “There’s no two ways about it.” In late May, the univer­sity sys­tem an­nounced its ad­mis­sions of­fi­cers would stop con­sid­er­ing test scores en­tirely start­ing in 2023, and a judge re­cently ruled that pol­icy must be im­ple­mented im­me­di­ately.

If the Col­lege Board has a re­cov­ery plan, it isn’t ar­tic­u­lat­ing it. In­stead, it’s hun­ker­ing down, re­fus­ing re­peated re­quests from Forbes to speak to se­nior man­age­ment and an­swer­ing ques­tions solely by email. “Lo­cal schools and test cen­ters make in­di­vid­ual de­ci­sions about whether to ad­min­is­ter the SAT,” writes a spokesper­son. To crit­ics who say the Col­lege Board isn’t ful­fill­ing its mis­sion: “Each year, we help clear a path for more than 7 mil­lion stu­dents to own their own fu­ture.”

What has emerged from in­ter­views with more than 75 sources, in­clud­ing 13 for­mer highly placed Col­lege Board ex­ec­u­tives, all of whom asked not to be iden­ti­fied be­cause they still work in ed­u­ca­tion or re­lated busi­nesses in which the Col­lege Board wields con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence, is a pic­ture of an or­ga­ni­za­tion un­der se­ri­ous strain, run by an elit­ist, tonedeaf chief ex­ec­u­tive. Af­ter be­com­ing CEO in 2012, Cole­man turned the or­ga­ni­za­tion into a seem­ingly in­vin­ci­ble cash ma­chine. But 2020 has been its un­do­ing. Some are now ques­tion­ing the SAT’s long-term sur­vival. Forbes es­ti­mates that thwarted spring and fall test dates have kept more than 1.5 mil­lion stu­dents from tak­ing the SAT, re­sult­ing in as much as $200 mil­lion in lost rev­enue for the Col­lege Board.

The grow­ing crit­i­cism of ad­mis­sions tests is part of a larger de­bate about ac­cess to higher ed­u­ca­tion in Amer­ica. “Col­lege has be­come the cap­stone in an in­equal­ity ma­chine that raises and per­pet­u­ates class and race hi­er­ar­chies and sinks the lower classes,” writes An­thony Carnevale, di­rec­tor of the Ge­orge­town Univer­sity Cen­ter on Ed­u­ca­tion and the Work­force in his 2020 book, The Merit Myth, which lays out the ways that Amer­ica’s most se­lec­tive col­leges foster and per­pet­u­ate wealth dis­par­ity. Carnevale, an econ­o­mist who served

on com­mis­sions for Pres­i­dents Ge­orge W. Bush and Bill Clin­ton, says the Col­lege Board de­serves some of the blame.

“It’s the evil em­pire,” he says. “The SAT is ba­si­cally a dodge . . . . It pro­vides a shiny sci­en­tific cover for a sys­tem of in­equal­ity that guar­an­tees that rich kids go to the most se­lec­tive col­leges. It makes all that sound like science when it’s not.” he Col­lege Board’s role

Tin ad­mis­sions started more than a cen­tury ago. The or­ga­ni­za­tion was founded in 1900 by a group of 15 elite col­leges and prep schools, in­clud­ing Columbia and Prince­ton, that wanted to in­crease en­roll­ment of highly in­tel­li­gent stu­dents from be­yond the East Coast up­per class. The first Scholas­tic Ap­ti­tude Test, given in 1926, was de­signed by Prince­ton psy­chol­o­gist Carl Brigham, an avid sup­porter of the eu­gen­ics move­ment, which ad­vo­cated se­lec­tive breed­ing to elim­i­nate traits like low in­tel­li­gence. He be­lieved Black peo­ple to be in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­fe­rior. The exam, which was adapted from an in­tel­li­gence test given to sol­diers in World War I, pur­ported to mea­sure smarts as op­posed to knowl­edge.

The Col­lege Board’s sole com­peti­tor, an Iowa City, Iowa–based or­ga­ni­za­tion called Amer­i­can Col­lege Test­ing, launched a dif­fer­ent kind of en­trance exam in 1959. Meant to gauge what stu­dents had learned in high school, it was mar­keted to large pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties. The ACT gained ground in the mid­dle of the coun­try, while the SAT was the choice on the coasts.

De­spite the Col­lege Board’s ini­tial claim that it wasn’t pos­si­ble to study for the SAT, in 1938 a Brook­lyn plumber’s son named Stan­ley Ka­plan started of­fer­ing SAT-prep classes in his par­ents’ base­ment. Ka­plan and the multi­bil­lion-dol­lar global test-prep in­dus­try he spawned would not only boost the SAT’s pop­u­lar­ity but help its brand ex­pand world­wide.

Since the 1960s, crit­ics have charged that the SAT con­fers an un­fair ad­van­tage on wealthy fam­i­lies who can pay for prep, which runs as high as $1,000 an hour. An­other tar­get: the Ed­u­ca­tional Test­ing Ser­vice, a Prince­ton, New Jer­sey, non­profit founded in 1947

Af­ter be­com­ing CEO in 2012, David Cole­man turned the Col­lege Board into a seem­ingly in­vin­ci­ble cash ma­chine. But 2020 has been its un­do­ing.

by the Col­lege Board and two other en­ti­ties. It de­vel­ops SAT ques­tions and ad­min­is­ters and scores the ex­ams. For those ser­vices, the Col­lege Board paid ETS $350 mil­lion in 2018.

No one has shaken up the Col­lege Board more than Cole­man, its cur­rent chief ex­ec­u­tive. Raised in Man­hat­tan by a psy­chi­a­trist fa­ther and a mother who was a col­lege dean at the pro­gres­sive New School for So­cial Re­search and later the pres­i­dent of Ben­ning­ton Col­lege, Cole­man at­tended pres­ti­gious Stuyvesant High School, then ma­jored in phi­los­o­phy at Yale, where he started Branch, a tu­tor­ing pro­gram for dis­ad­van­taged New Haven high school­ers. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 1991, he won a Rhodes schol­ar­ship and earned de­grees at Ox­ford and Cam­bridge.

In 1994, he joined con­sult­ing firm McKin­sey but left af­ter five years to found The Grow Net­work, a startup that helped schools an­a­lyze stan­dard­ized-test re­sults. He had come to em­brace the con­tro­ver­sial Com­mon Core move­ment, backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion, which sought to in­tro­duce a stan­dard cur­ricu­lum to pub­lic schools na­tion­wide. Shortly af­ter sell­ing his startup, he launched Stu­dent Achieve­ment Part­ners, a non­profit con­sult­ing out­fit that pro­moted the Com­mon Core. The cur­ricu­lum em­pha­sizes the read­ing and anal­y­sis of pri­mary texts like the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence.

In a 2011 speech to a group of New York ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials, later blasted by teach­ers who viewed Cole­man as ar­ro­gant and out of touch, he dis­missed the idea of per­sonal writ­ing, a long­time sta­ple of most pub­lic-school cur­ric­ula. “As you grow up in this world, you re­al­ize peo­ple re­ally don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think,” he said. The fol­low­ing year, the Col­lege Board tapped him to be its pres­i­dent and CEO.

Cole­man’s no-non­sense ap­proach was a de­par­ture from that of his pre­de­ces­sor, Gas­ton Caper­ton, a folksy for­mer gov­er­nor of West Vir­ginia. “[Cole­man] thought he was the smartest per­son in the room,” says one Board ex­ec­u­tive who left a year into Cole­man’s ten­ure. “He just tol­er­ated peo­ple.”

At Col­lege Board, Cole­man ini­ti­ated an as­sault on chief com­peti­tor ACT, which had over­taken Col­lege Board’s mar­ket share in part by strik­ing deals with 14 states to give the test to all their pub­lic high school stu­dents. ACT had mar­keted its test as a twofer, a col­lege en­trance exam and an as­sess­ment that sat­is­fied a fed­eral test­ing re­quire­ment in read­ing and math for high school stu­dents.

If he wanted to com­pete for state busi­ness, Cole­man would need to make dras­tic changes. His plan was to re­make the SAT to be cur­ricu­lum-fo­cused like the ACT (no more ques­tions re­quir­ing stu­dents to mem­o­rize ob­scure SAT vo­cab­u­lary words like im­pe­cu­nious and noi­some). In 2013 he hired Cyn­die Sch­meiser, who had left ACT af­ter run­ning its ed­u­ca­tion di­vi­sion for nearly 38 years. Cole­man opened an of­fice for her in an Iowa City sub­urb and started poach­ing ACT em­ploy­ees. Col­lege Board’s Iowa staff grew to more than 20 peo­ple.

Cole­man then de­ployed strate­gies that seemed to come straight from a guer­rilla-mar­ket­ing hand­book. To quiet crit­ics of the test’s pur­ported af­flu­ent-stu­dent bias, the Col­lege Board formed a part­ner­ship with pop­u­lar Sil­i­con Val­ley on­line ed­u­ca­tion non­profit Khan Academy to de­velop free on­line SAT-prep cour­ses. “We at the Col­lege Board think that as­sess­ment with­out op­por­tu­nity is dead,” Cole­man told the Texas Tri­bune in March 2016.

The new SAT also re­verted to the 1600-point scale from the 2400 scale it had main­tained from 2005 to 2016. Col­lege Board in­flated its new scores to take aim at the fact that ACT had ben­e­fited from a wave of dual test tak­ers—SAT top scor­ers who dis­cov­ered that the cur­ricu­lum-based test was now wel­come at east­ern col­leges. Call it smart pack­ag­ing: A 1300 score on the new SAT was es­ti­mated to be the equiv­a­lent of a 1230 on the math and crit­i­cal­read­ing sec­tions of the pre­vi­ous ver­sion. Af­ter all, what 17-year-old wouldn’t want a 70-point im­prove­ment on her of­fi­cial score re­port, even if it was mean­ing­less from an ap­ti­tude stand­point?

Cole­man’s fi­nal blows to ACT came in the form of deep dis­counts on statewide con­tracts. His staff be­gan low­balling bids to ACT’s cus­tomers. In 2015, for ex­am­ple, Col­lege Board won a three-year con­tract with the state of Michi­gan at a price that was $15.4 mil­lion less than ACT’s bid.

By 2018 Col­lege Board’s new SAT had won 10 state con­tracts, in­clud­ing three for­merly held by ACT. Thanks to Cole­man and his new SAT, Col­lege Board was once again the mar­ket leader.

While the SAT looms large among the brands Col­lege Board mar­kets to high school­ers and their par­ents, it is only marginally prof­itable. Each test costs nearly $2 mil­lion to con­struct, ac­cord­ing to for­mer staffers, and to pre­vent cheat­ing, a com­pletely new test must be cre­ated for each of 12 an­nual sit­tings in the U.S. and over­seas. Com­pos­ing the 154 ques­tions that make up each exam in­volves an elab­o­rate twoyear process. A staff of as­sess­ment de­sign­ers and devel­op­ers write ques­tions which are then re­viewed by an ex­ter­nal com­mit­tee. Many tests in­clude a 20-minute sec­tion with sam­ple ques­tions that don’t count to­ward a stu­dent’s score but are used to eval­u­ate items for fu­ture tests.

For­mer em­ploy­ees con­tend that Col­lege Board does no bet­ter than break even on each SAT it gives (the charge is ei­ther $52 or $68 for a test with a writ­ing por­tion; it of­fers fee waivers to low-in­come stu­dents). But the SAT is a crit­i­cal part of Col­lege Board’s mar­ket­ing fun­nel, which be­gins ear­lier with the PSAT.

Since 1959 Col­lege Board has of­fered the PSAT, a $17 twohour-45-minute mini-SAT taken by 10th and 11th graders. The test qual­i­fies top scor­ers for the $2,500 Na­tional Merit Schol­ar­ship, given to 8,000 stu­dents each year.

The PSAT is free to most high school fam­i­lies be­cause the

Col­lege Board has a large net­work of con­tracts with states, dis­tricts and in­di­vid­ual schools, many of which ab­sorb the costs. Only a quar­ter of the 3.9 mil­lion PSATs taken last year were paid for by stu­dents’ fam­i­lies, say for­mer Col­lege Board in­sid­ers. The PSAT is great prac­tice for the real SAT and, more im­por­tantly, it de­posits stu­dents into Col­lege Board’s large data­base of prospects. Un­der Cole­man, Col­lege Board in­tro­duced a new $13 PSAT 8/9, a test taken as early as eighth grade. Score re­ports from these tests of­ten sug­gest AP classes the stu­dents should take, in­tro­duc­ing them to an­other Col­lege Board prod­uct.

Col­lege Board’s stu­dent data­base, housed within its Col­lege and Ca­reer Op­por­tu­ni­ties & En­roll­ment di­vi­sion, is a profit gusher. In 2018 the unit pro­duced more than $100 mil­lion in rev­enue with gross mar­gins of 41%.

When ner­vous young test tak­ers sit down for their ex­ams, proc­tors are in­structed to read from a script that in­forms them that if they pro­vide per­sonal de­tails, they’ll re­ceive valu­able in­for­ma­tion about schol­ar­ships and col­leges. Most sign up, and for 47 cents per test taker, Col­lege Board “leases” stu­dent data, in­clud­ing eth­nic­ity, re­li­gion, gen­der and their par­ents’ ed­u­ca­tional back­grounds, to col­leges and other third par­ties. The prac­tice ini­ti­ates an on­slaught of pro­mo­tional mail­ings and brochures that stu­dents’ fam­i­lies must en­dure in the years lead­ing up to ad­mis­sion. (Late last year, a clas­s­ac­tion suit was filed in fed­eral court in Illi­nois, claim­ing the Col­lege Board is vi­o­lat­ing the state’s child pri­vacy laws and us­ing de­cep­tive prac­tices to en­rich it­self. Col­lege Board points out that a sim­i­lar suit was dis­missed sev­eral years ago.)

The PSAT and SAT ex­ams are loss lead­ers, in a sense, steer­ing stu­dents to other op­por­tu­ni­ties on which Col­lege Board can cash in.

“Think about it like Spirit Air­lines,” says one ex­ec­u­tive who worked at the Col­lege Board for more than a decade. “The ticket price is low, and the add-ons are where they get you.” Col­lege Board of­fers to send a stu­dent’s scores to four schools for free within 10 days of their hav­ing taken the test, but then charges $12 a pop to send re­sults to ad­di­tional schools. There’s an ad­di­tional $31 fee per or­der if a stu­dent wants them rushed. Thanks to elec­tronic plat­forms like the Com­mon Ap­pli­ca­tion, many stu­dents will send scores to ten col­leges or more. If test tak­ers want to see which ques­tions they an­swered in­cor­rectly, they must pay $18. Chang­ing their test date, which busy high school­ers of­ten do, costs an­other $30. These fees ac­count for a sub­stan­tial por­tion of the $406 mil­lion in 2018 rev­enue col­lected by the Col­lege Board’s As­sess­ments di­vi­sion, which in­cludes the SAT and PSAT pro­grams.

The big­gest moneymaker for the non­profit is its Ad­vanced Place­ment pro­gram, housed in­side a di­vi­sion that ac­counted for $483 mil­lion in rev­enue in 2018. The Col­lege Board ben­e­fits from economies of scale in the most pop­u­lar sub­jects, in­clud­ing AP U.S. His­tory and AP English Lan­guage and Com­po­si­tion. Gross mar­gins for the AP di­vi­sion over­all are 29%, but some tests have mar­gins well over 50%, say for­mer em­ploy­ees.

The AP pro­gram has grown ex­po­nen­tially since 1955, when the Col­lege Board took it over. It has al­most no com­peti­tors and few crit­ics. Its ex­pan­sion is a les­son in mas­ter­ful prod­uct mar­ket­ing. Orig­i­nally backed by the Ford Foun­da­tion, the idea was to give chal­leng­ing work to a small group of high-achiev­ing stu­dents. “It was a very elit­ist pro­gram at its in­cep­tion,” says Kristin Klopfen­stein, an econ­o­mist who spent 12 years study­ing the pro­gram.

In 1988, the feel-good movie Stand and De­liver, based on the true story of de­voted East Los An­ge­les AP Cal­cu­lus teacher Jaime Es­calante, whose low­in­come Latino stu­dents all passed their ex­ams, gave a huge boost to the pro­gram in the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion. The Col­lege Board ran with it, push­ing AP cour­ses for all with­out con­sid­er­ing the re­sources un­der­funded school dis­tricts would need to help stu­dents suc­ceed. “They were try­ing to make the AP into some­thing it wasn’t de­signed to be,” Klopfen­stein says.

For years there were only 11 AP cour­ses of­fered in core sub­jects like chem­istry, physics and his­tory. The cur­ricu­lum was col­lege-level, and high scor­ers could some­times re­ceive col­lege credit or place­ment. How do you ex­pand the mar­ket when a prod­uct is in high de­mand? Give cus­tomers va­ri­ety. Just as Gen­eral Mo­tors of­fers 20 dif­fer­ent mod­els of SUV, to­day there are nearly 40 AP ex­ams in top­ics rang­ing from art his­tory and hu­man ge­og­ra­phy to psy­chol­ogy and draw­ing. De­mand for AP Com­puter Science, for ex­am­ple, was so brisk that in 2017 Col­lege Board ginned up an eas­ier vari­a­tion called Com­puter Science Prin­ci­ples, which is one of its fastest-grow­ing prod­ucts. Last year 96,000 Prin­ci­ples AP ex­ams were given, com­pared to 70,000 Java cod­ing–heavy Com­puter Science A ex­ams. Ac­cord­ing to Col­lege Board’s data, from 2005 to 2008, 496,000 stu­dents took three or more AP ex­ams. A decade later that num­ber had more than dou­bled, to 1.1 mil­lion.

Like the SAT, the AP pro­gram is a fee bo­nanza. AP ex­ams cost $95 each. There’s a $40 late fee for miss­ing the Novem­ber reg­is­tra­tion dead­line, and those who regis­ter, pay and then can­cel get only $45 back. To send scores to more than one school or to sub­mit scores late, Col­lege Board charges $15 per score re­port.

Sim­i­lar to their per­for­mance on the SAT, Black and brown stu­dents don’t do as well on AP tests as white stu­dents. Ac­cord­ing to the Col­lege Board’s own fig­ures, in 2019, 68% of Black and 56% of Latino stu­dents who took an AP test did not earn a pass­ing score of 3 or higher on the exam’s five­point scale. The fail­ure rate for all stu­dents was 41%.

De­spite the dis­ap­point­ing stats, the Col­lege Board has lob­bied states to sup­port its highly prof­itable AP pro­gram, pro­mot­ing it as a way to el­e­vate Amer­i­can high school cur­ric­ula and carry out the Col­lege Board’s mis­sion of con­nect­ing stu­dents with col­lege suc­cess. A high school’s AP pro­gram is an

im­por­tant mea­sure of its per­ceived qual­ity. And the num­ber of AP cour­ses on a stu­dent’s high school tran­script is one of the most heav­ily weighted mea­sures col­lege ad­mis­sions of­fi­cers use to eval­u­ate ap­pli­cants. Many states now sub­si­dize the ex­ams and re­quire that AP par­tic­i­pa­tion or scores be used to mea­sure school and district per­for­mance. Last year more than 5 mil­lion AP ex­ams were given in nearly 23,000 high schools.

What’s most baf­fling about the Col­lege Board’s cur­rent woes is that its man­age­ment has yet to come up with an ad­e­quate plan to ad­min­is­ter its tests safely and ef­fi­ciently dur­ing the pan­demic. It man­aged to of­fer vir­tual AP ex­ams in the spring. But widely re­ported tech­ni­cal prob­lems prompted a $500 mil­lion fed­eral class-ac­tion suit al­leg­ing that its web­site failed to ac­cept the an­swers filed by thou­sands of stu­dents. (The Col­lege Board calls the suit a “PR stunt” and says it is “wrong fac­tu­ally and base­less legally.”)

The non­profit has the fi­nan­cial re­sources to ad­dress its prob­lems. Its most re­cent pub­licly avail­able bal­ance sheet shows that it op­er­ates with more than $300 mil­lion in cash and sav­ings and nearly $850 mil­lion in in­vest­ments. Brain­power isn’t an is­sue ei­ther. Its ex­ec­u­tive suite is deep, well-cre­den­tialed and lav­ishly paid. Only one of its 18 listed of­fi­cers made less than $300,000 in 2018. Eleven, in­clud­ing the chief of “mem­ber­ship, gover­nance and global higher ed,” earned more than $500,000.

Col­lege Board’s in­ept man­age­ment of the SAT dur­ing the pan­demic could have long-term con­se­quences. For­mer Col­lege Board ex­ec­u­tives and close out­side ob­servers point to the demise of the SAT Sub­ject Tests as an ob­ject les­son. These sin­gle-sub­ject ex­ams in dis­ci­plines like chem­istry and math dou­bled down on AP’s suc­cess for­mula but were mor­tally wounded in 2012 when the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia sys­tem stopped re­quir­ing them. Hun­dreds of other col­leges fol­lowed UC’s lead. Data from the Col­lege Board show that the num­ber of Sub­ject Tests taken in 2017 had fallen by nearly 300,000 since 2011.

Many think Cal­i­for­nia’s re­cent ac­tions mark the be­gin­ning of the end of the iconic SAT. “UC’s de­ci­sion was huge,” says An­gel B. Pérez, new head of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for Col­lege Ad­mis­sion Coun­sel­ing, an or­ga­ni­za­tion with 14,000 mem­bers. “It’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore other pub­lic sys­tems fol­low suit.” Pérez’s pre­vi­ous job was head of en­roll­ment at Trin­ity Col­lege, a pri­vate lib­eral arts school in Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut, that stopped re­quir­ing tests in 2015. His pre­dic­tion about schools that have switched to test-op­tional poli­cies dur­ing the pan­demic: “They’re go­ing to learn how to do ad­mis­sions with­out the tests.”

Even for sev­eral mem­bers of the Ivy League, the SAT has be­come an un­in­tended li­a­bil­ity. The re­cent anti–af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion law­suit al­leg­ing that Har­vard dis­crim­i­nated against Asian-Amer­i­cans used the paper trail left by the test to bol­ster its claims, and Yale is fac­ing racial dis­crim­i­na­tion claims raised by the Jus­tice De­part­ment. “Schools want as lit­tle ev­i­dence on the ta­ble as pos­si­ble,” says Ge­orge­town’s An­thony Carnevale.

But those con­cerned with racial jus­tice con­tend that the ev­i­dence prov­ing that the SAT dis­ad­van­tages peo­ple of color is over­whelm­ing. Col­lege Board’s own data from 2019 show its free Khan Academy prep classes have had lit­tle if any ef­fect. Black stu­dents had a mean SAT score of 933, com­pared to 1114 for white stu­dents.

Iron­i­cally, if the SAT sur­vives the pan­demic, it will likely be thanks in part to the in­elas­tic de­mand it has cul­ti­vated from the very par­ties who now feel most ag­grieved by its in­abil­ity to get its house in or­der. Says one frus­trated north­ern New Jer­sey par­ent ea­ger for her son to be ad­mit­ted to an Ivy who re­cently spent an hour and a half on hold with Col­lege Board cus­tomer ser­vice: “I am some­one who feels stan­dard­ized tests have value, [but] I think Col­lege Board is poorly man­aged.”

There are also many re­source-thin pub­lic col­leges, from the Univer­sity of Kansas to Florida In­ter­na­tional Univer­sity, that can ill af­ford to adopt “holis­tic” ap­pli­ca­tion pro­cesses and have re­lied on stan­dard­ized-test scores to help screen tens of thou­sands of ap­pli­cants. Thou­sands more schools have used the SAT to help them cal­cu­late the tuition dis­counts they of­fer, bet­ter known as “merit aid.”

The open se­cret that David Cole­man knows well is that de­spite its many flaws, the SAT is a crit­i­cal tool for the af­flu­ent, be­cause it is a gate­keeper to many col­leges and, ul­ti­mately, suc­cess.

Be­yond col­lege ad­mis­sions and rank­ings, the SAT con­tin­ues to be tapped in ways never in­tended. Con­sult­ing firms like McKin­sey ask job ap­pli­cants to sub­mit SAT scores. Neigh­bor­hood schools’ SAT scores af­fect home prices. Stan­dard & Poor’s takes SAT lev­els into ac­count when it is­sues bond rat­ings to col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties.

At a time when the pan­demic is threat­en­ing Amer­ica’s col­leges with fi­nan­cial Ar­maged­don, it’s tough to imag­ine that schools will aban­don a screen­ing mech­a­nism that pro­tects the ad­mis­sions prospects of stu­dents from wealthy fam­i­lies. While the

Col­lege Board has strug­gled to man­age the pan­demic test­ing chaos, its 1,800-per­son staff has re­mained fully em­ployed. Its test­ing com­peti­tor, ACT, has by con­trast an­nounced job cuts, fur­loughs and the abrupt de­par­ture of its CEO. But the Col­lege Board may need a new kind of leader to find its way through the next phase. For one thing, for­mer staffers men­tion that from a tech­nol­ogy stand­point, the or­ga­ni­za­tion is woe­fully be­hind.

In May of last year, David Cole­man au­thored an ar­ti­cle in the Atlantic head­lined “There’s More to Col­lege Than Just Get­ting Into Col­lege.” The story’s sub­ti­tle could have been writ­ten by one of the Col­lege Board’s crit­ics: “Applying to schools has be­come an end­less chore—one that teaches stu­dents noth­ing about what re­ally mat­ters in higher ed­u­ca­tion.”

It was like an ar­son­ist com­plain­ing about an out-of­con­trol fire. Wrote Cole­man, “Low scores should never be a veto on a stu­dent’s life.”

Many think the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia’s re­cent ac­tions mark the be­gin­ning of the end of the iconic SAT. Even for sev­eral mem­bers of the Ivy League, the SAT has be­come an un­in­tended li­a­bil­ity.

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 ??  ?? Col­lege Board CEO David Cole­man re­vamped and re­vived the SAT, but of­fer­ing free test prep from Khan Academy has done lit­tle to boost Black and brown stu­dent scores.
Col­lege Board CEO David Cole­man re­vamped and re­vived the SAT, but of­fer­ing free test prep from Khan Academy has done lit­tle to boost Black and brown stu­dent scores.

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