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 non-profit that operates as a near-monopoly. 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 the 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 well- being 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 class-action suit against the College Board?”
Frustrated students and apoplectic helicopter parents aren’t the College Board’s only problems. The non-profit and its SAT have long been criticised 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. 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 organisation under serious strain, run by an elitist, tone-deaf 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.”
The College Board’s role in admissions started more than a century ago. The organisation 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 organisation 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, non-profit founded in 1947 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.
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