Don’t Call Them Test Companies: How the College Board and ACT Have Shifted Focus
These days the leaders of the College Board, which runs the SAT, have been making a surprising argument—that colleges and parents should stop taking the scores of its signature test so seriously. Or, at least, that SAT scores should be considered as just one factor among many in judging whether a student is ready for college, or a fit for a highly-selective campus.
“The era of trying to measure aptitude is finally over,” wrote the College Board’s president, David Coleman, in an essay in The Atlantic earlier this summer, referring to the version of the test that has been in place since 2014, when the SAT was last revised. “The new SAT does not tell students or anyone else how smart students are, or how capable they are of learning new things. It only says something about whether students have yet attained the reading, writing, and math skills they will use to gain knowledge in college or career training; it makes no statement about what they are capable of learning.”
In this new era, the College Board is testing a controversial new metric that has been labeled as an “adversity score.” The group calls the new tool the Environmental Context Dashboard, and its goal is to help college admissions officials put an applicant’s SAT score in perspective by showing whether the students come from a place of hardship or relative advantage.
Meanwhile, the SAT’s largest competitor, the ACT, has been working to rebrand itself as well, moving away from a focus on scoring students. In a statement on its website in May, the ACT said that it is transforming itself from an “assessment company” into “an organization providing learning, measurement, and navigation support to learners.” The group is increasingly stressing what it calls a “holistic framework” it developed to help students prepare for college, and has added new tools including a test for social-emotional skills.
Admission to these schools is a zero-sum game, and there’s just no agreement as to who should get these slots.”—Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test.
The groups are looking to change their focus as the college admissions process is under fresh scrutiny in the wake of the Varsity Blues scandal, in which parents paid millions of dollars to get their kids into highly selective colleges by cheating on admissions tests or helping them pose as student athletes.
These changes also come at a time when a growing number of colleges are moving away from their reliance on standardized tests—by going “test optional” or otherwise de-emphasizing the exam when making admissions decisions. A group called FairTest, a watchdog group critical of the SAT and ACT, has compiled a list of more than 1,000 colleges in the U.S. “that do not use ACT/SAT scores to admit substantial numbers of students into bachelor-degree programs.”
Many colleges going test-optional argue that the tests work against their efforts to build more diverse classes. A poll of admissions leaders conducted last fall by Inside Higher Ed found that many are concerned that admissions tests have shown signs of racial bias, and many colleges that have moved away from the SAT and ACT say they have seen an uptick in minority students.
“If you were trying to design a system to perpetuate power, wealth and privilege—and for that matter race, to advantage white people and Asians—you can hardly do better than these tests,” argues Jim McCorkell, CEO and founder of College Possible, a nonprofit that helps underprivileged students get into college and complete their studies.
In a way, the College Board and ACT are trying to resolve what is a fundamental contradiction in their missions. On one hand, they help colleges sort through the huge numbers of applicants and decide who to admit. But both groups also pledge to make college accessible to a broad mix of students, and to help every student become college-ready.
“They’re not like people spinning their mustaches saying, ‘How do we screw the world over?’ That’s not what they’re trying to do,” says McCorkell, who praises the latest efforts by the groups to encourage diversity in admissions. Still, he wishes the tests had less influence than they do, since he worries that they can work against the students he advocates for.
Nicholas Lemann, a journalism professor at Columbia University who wrote a book in 1999 about the history of the SAT called “The Big Test,” says such contradictions put these admissions-test makers in a tough, even impossible, spot.
“The idea that you can work this out in a way that’s going to make everybody happy is a chimera—it’s just not going to happen,” Lemann said in an interview with EdSurge, stressing that the tests have become a key part of how Harvard University and other elite colleges pick their students. “Admission to these schools is a zero-sum game,” he points out, “and there’s just no agreement as to who should get these slots.”
Diversity and the SAT
The College Board’s new “adversity score” responds to a broader trend among colleges to try to attract and enroll more first-generation students and those from families with few resources, says Annie Reznik, the executive director of the Coalition for College.
The three-year-old nonprofit works with about 140 public and private colleges to increase access to higher education. She says selective colleges these days are trying new forms of outreach to first-generation and low-income students because they realize that these applicants often don’t understand how the admissions process works and may miss opportunities as a result.
Reznik, who previously worked as an admissions counselor, says the group provides free advice on how to navigate the application process. The coalition also holds what it calls “coalition day” events for ninth and tenth graders in towns across the country to inform parents and students, sometimes with representatives from several colleges in attendance.
Why would the colleges work together when they are often competing for the same students? “Our mentality is, let’s get students that have never been in the pipeline before into it, and then we can fight over them,” says Reznik.
She says that her organization also works to help students select colleges that not only are likely to accept them, but also where they are likely to finish. In some cases, she says, the most selective colleges don’t have the best track records teaching first-generation students. And, she adds, “some colleges that have very high outcomes have high admissions rates,” meaning that students should look to find the best fit for them. The coalition only works with colleges that have a 60 percent graduation rate or better.
Reznik praises the College Board’s new adversity score, and says it can help the students her group supports, some of whom might have SAT scores that are lower than the national average but high compared to others in their school or neighborhood. While the coalition helps students tell their stories in their personal essays on applications, not all students realize, or know how, to articulate the obstacles they have overcome.
McCorkell, who leads College Possible, says he agrees, and knows the situation from personal experience.
“I grew up in a low-income family, and I would have welcomed a score that indicated that we came from a place that didn’t have very much money,” he says. “I didn’t know how to say it. I wasn’t comfortable with that until I was 35. It took a long time to get [past] the feeling of being ashamed of my background—ashamed that my parents didn’t finish high school. It didn’t even occur to me that it could possibly be a positive.”
That said, he says there is a shift in attitude among the students his group works with, and colleges are working to help celebrate first-generation students.
“We’re seeing lots of college campuses now they’ll have a community called ‘I’m first’ that I’m a first-generation college student. At some of our partner schools we’re seeing that some of the students are wearing t-shirts that say “I’m first.”Some students now sport t-shirts proudly announcing that they are first-generation college students.
Officials for The College Board declined requests to be interviewed for this article. But the group’s president, Jeremy Singer, said in an email statement that it is focusing on helping students from a range of backgrounds succeed. “The core of our work is in helping students recognize their potential, then clearing a path so they can move confidently toward college and claim their future,” he wrote. “Over the past several years, we have transformed what we offer students and educators ... to deliver concrete opportunities for students.”
It’s unclear whether the new Environmental Context Dashboard will keep colleges who are thinking about dropping the SAT from doing so. The group FairTest lists 30 colleges that it says are considering going test-optional.
Action at ACT
The ACT, meanwhile, has taken a different approach to foster student diversity.
The group is offering support services to schools and individual students that are designed to help prepare students to get in and succeed in college—and not just academically. It calls its approach the ACT Holistic Framework, which it claims is based on research into student success. The framework emphasizes four elements: core academic skills, behavioral skills, “cross-cutting skills” and education and career navigation skills.
“Our approach is all about the individual” rather than telling colleges about a student’s environment, says Alina von Davier, who leads the ACT Next project for the group.
One component is a test the group offers called Tessera, which is designed to measure a student’s social-emotional learning skills and help them improve them. These scores are not shared with colleges, so the ACT is not creating a new high-stakes test, says von Davier. Instead, students can use the test to develop their skills, which can help them succeed on their own. “We want to help all learners everywhere,” she adds, “not only through assessment but also through learning.”
The group continues to build its portfolio of services around the framework. Just this month the group acquired Mawi Learning, a social-emotional learning company that offers online and blended courses in SEL.
The ACT did not shy away from framing its offerings as a better alternative to what its longtime competitor is doing. In a statement on its website in May, the group argued that its approach was better for students than the College Board’s environmental dashboard.
“We believe attempts to quantify the degree of adversity encountered by students, while well-intentioned, are misguided because of the quality and types of data employed,” they wrote. “When school- or neighborhood-level data are used to compute an adversity score, the score might reflect a portion of the context for that individual’s experience, but it will rarely, if ever, reflect the fuller circumstances of that individual’s life and, as such, it runs the risk of or introducing or reinforcing potential bias or stereotypes.”
The ACT started in the 1950s, and has always set itself apart from the College Board, says Lemann, who wrote “The Big Test.” Noting that the ACT started at the University of Iowa, he says the test was designed with state universities in mind, which at the time had nearly open admissions and so the goal was not to weed out students. Instead, professors and administrators were looking for more of a diagnostic test to see which level of courses to place students in. That way, Lemann says, “faculty didn’t have to get into this labor-intensive process of teaching unprepared students.”
‘The Rise of Meritocracy’
When the SAT was started, in 1926, the word “meritocracy” hadn’t been coined, Lemann points out in his book.
When the word was first used, in 1958, it appeared in a work of satire, by Michael Dunlop Young, a sociologist. That satirical work, called “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” presented a dystopian world in which only those with skills succeeded, while all others were doomed to an underclass. It was presented as a nightmare scenario where no one had any privilege or way to guarantee success for their children.
Yet the founders of the SAT saw their creation as a way to distribute access to the nation’s top colleges more fairly, according to Lemann.
“The people who started this system were in their own minds idealists,” he told EdSurge. “They thought they were taking Harvard away from the bankers and giving it to a new class of technocrats who would work mainly for the government.”
They weren’t at all imagining the mix of race and class who attend elite colleges today, he argues. “they weren’t ‘racist.’ It just didn’t occur to them that this should be a factor,” he says. “It also didn’t occur to them that the system would be gamed by fortunate parents to get a better result for their kids.”
The SAT and ACT have both changed many times as the testing groups have responded to societal shifts since they began.
Meanwhile, Lemann concludes in his book, college admission has become a bigger force in American society—for better or for worse—than the designers of the first SAT could have realized.
“That our universities have evolved into a national personnel department represents the striking of a complicated bargain,” he writes. “They have gotten out of it the chance to be big and important—to be treated by the public, and not wrongly, as an object of yearning, an all-powerful arbiter of fates. They have lost a certain apartness from the world, a commitment to pure learning and scholarship, a freedom from instrumentalism. Universities are now political and economic institutions.”
Which is why things like the SAT’s “adversity score” have elicited such widespread interest, and controversy.
Correction: This article originally misidentified the birthplace of the ACT as Iowa State University. The test was started by an education professor at the University of Iowa.