From the frequency of its use to the high stakes attached to it, standardized testing is among the biggest hot-button topics in education today. The number of educators and families disputing its necessity has only risen over the years, with the last few years seeing a spike in the number of students opting out of participating in their states' annual tests.
It may come as some surprise that one of the first people who will admit that the current testing model is broken is also at the helm of the company that produces some of the biggest tests in K-12 and higher ed, the Advanced Placement and SAT exams. But according to College Board President and CEO David Coleman, "Assessment without opportunity is dead. We don't need more tests. We need more opportunities."
"Everything I've seen convinces me that assessments alone don't solve problems," he told a packed theater at the New York Times Schools For Tomorrow Conference.
Despite admissions officers frequently citing the SAT's ability to help identify "diamonds in the rough," data shows more than half of high-achieving low-income students taking the exam don't apply to highly selective schools. On the AP front, 14 states had no Hispanic or black exam-takers, and less than 20% women taking the AP Computer Science exam in 2010.
"We hoped assessment would level the playing field, but found that a test-prep industry arose that fostered the perception that testing merely recapitulates the inequalities tearing our society apart," Coleman said.
For Coleman, it's not enough for College Board to say problems like inequities in course access, test-prep, and performance aren't their fault. "It may not be our fault, but it is our problem."
With that in mind, the company has detailed four rules for assessments that advance opportunity.
1. Assess only what students learn in the classroom and will use again
Coleman illustrated this rule by asking the audience to consider SAT words, which might be defined as words a test-taker likely hadn't heard before and won't likely hear again. "In fact, they're called SAT words because the only place you can reliably find them is on an SAT. But that's not OK."
Ultimately, students shouldn't have to learn things simply because they're on a test, but because those things will have lasting value to their life and future success. For that reason, the SAT no longer has "SAT words" and instead features words (i.e. synthesis, analysis) that students will use numerous times throughout college coursework and career training. Additionally, the exam narrowed its math focus instead of trying to cover the topic in a manner that was "a mile wide and an inch deep."
2. Ensure all students claim the opportunities they've earned
Fixing the test was just the first step, Coleman said. When examining why low-income high-achievers didn't apply to highly selective colleges, College Board found that one major hindrance was application fees.
After working with colleges, the company is now able to provide four fee waivers to all low-income students taking the SAT. In Advanced Placement, College Board has also launched an "all-in" campaign to improve the number of black and Latino students taking exams. In 2015, Coleman said, the number of states lacking black or Latino AP Computer Science exam takers was down to one.
3. Assessments must earn students and families something worthwhile
Students shouldn't be told to take a test "because they have to," Coleman said. "Students don't buy it, teachers don't buy it, and, increasingly, parents don't buy it."
In Advanced Placement, he said, students and teachers have an exact reason for why they're working hard: college credit. For that reason, the PSAT also now carries an additional $180 million in scholarship opportunities as part of College Board's partnerships with National Merit, the United Negro College Fund, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.
4. Remember what assessments can't do
This, Coleman told those gathered, is the most important rule because it hinges on the work students and teachers do every day. "The only things that change performance are productive practice and great courses."
To further assist in-class efforts, the College Board also partnered with Khan Academy to provide free test prep courses worldwide. The site launched this summer and has already been used by hundreds of thousands of unique users, who have solved over four million problems, according to Coleman. Additional partnerships with the Boys & Girls Clubs are meant to further ensure access to this material. For students who primarily only have Internet access via smartphone, the company is enabling them to take paper-and-pencil practice exams, which they can then snap a photo of and send over for grading and personal practice recommendations from Khan Academy.
Beyond making top-quality test prep free and equal, however, Coleman stresses the importance of daily work in class with teachers, using high-quality curriculum.
"It's time to stop lecturing folks that assessments are worth it and to prove it," he said.
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