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Steve Nelson: College Board Has Failed the Test

In an undated publicity photograph, students are tested in a Columbia High School classroom in Maplewood, N.J. (The College Board - George Lange)

In an undated publicity photograph, students are tested in a Columbia High School classroom in Maplewood, N.J. (The College Board - George Lange)

A Valley News editorial this week revisited Dartmouth College’s decision to no longer grant credit for Advanced Placement courses taken in high school. The decision drew comments from afar, including inviting the wrath of Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, who regarded the Dartmouth position as smacking of arrogance.

Well, then call me arrogant when I declare “a pox” on Advanced Placement courses and the entire College Board. The organization long ago outlived any useful purpose (if it had one) and has done far more harm than good in education.

The College Board was founded in 1900, supposedly to expand access to college and simplify the admission process. It was and continues to be, at least in name, a nonprofit organization, serving a public purpose supposedly justifying its tax-exempt status. While its initial purpose may or may not have been salutary, its current impact is corrosive.

As to its public purpose, it has been de-facto privatized for decades. It has built a virtual monopoly on testing, profiting from the creation and execution of the testing program and its copyrighted materials. Its executives are paid very high salaries. According to a CNN report, recently retired President Gaston Caperton was paid more than $1 million per year. The College Board has grown into a nearly $700 million per year corporation that exerts undeserved and harmful influence on secondary and post-secondary education. It has used aggressive business practices to make its goods and services indispensable to education, profiting from nearly every college-bound child in America with each transaction.

The SAT exam is a plague on education. SAT used to mean “Scholastic Aptitude Test” but now means, well, just plain SAT. Many critics aptly noted that success on the test demonstrated an aptitude for doing well on the Scholastic Aptitude Test and little else, so the College Board dropped the name and kept the meaningless acronym. Research has indicated that a student’s SAT scores are not a particularly good predictor of college success. The scores are an even worse predictor of life success. The test has also been rightly criticized for racial and cultural bias, although its self-interested executives deny that.

Even if the test is not biased per se, the process is biased by the burgeoning test-prep industry. It is inarguably true that wealthier students can “buy” test points through expensive test-prep courses. If the College Board ever intended to create equity in college admission, its effect has been the opposite. It confers advantage on the already-advantaged. The disproportionate weight given to SAT scores in admission further magnifies the many advantages already enjoyed by privileged kids.

The Advanced Placement scheme is equally skewed. Until recently, AP courses were more readily available in wealthier communities, by a wildly disproportionate margin. The frenzy to make education “more rigorous” has indeed democratized the AP program by visiting this test-taking nonsense on more and more students in public schools around the nation. But this (highly profitable) democratization has had the collateral effect of rendering the credential more and more useless. As more students take the courses and tests, it has become less an elite badge of honor, accelerating its well-deserved decline in importance. Thus the Dartmouth decision. It’s not a good idea to give away college credits to a lot of students. It was never a good educational idea, but now it’s bad business, too.

The most negative influence of the College Board has been in turning learning into a blood sport. Students obsess over SAT prep at the expense of far more interesting and valuable ways they might spend time. Most AP courses are canned, formulaic and uninspired. Students take them at a high cost, financially and emotionally. They accumulate AP credits like little badges of honor, surrendering curiosity, imagination and critical thinking skills to the building of a glittery transcript. My school abolished AP courses years ago because we can and do design courses of greater intellectual depth and interest. It has not affected our students’ college prospects at all. In fact there is substantial evidence that colleges are regretting the monster they helped create. Students with many AP courses and well-coached SAT scores are often incurious, highly stressed and see college as another system to game, not a life to love.

So Dartmouth took a good step, whatever the reason. If the college wishes to further enhance its integrity, it might join the growing list of colleges who are SAT optional or don’t consider test scores at all. If fewer colleges considered SAT scores and didn’t give credit for AP courses (or consider them in admissions), the College Board could be gradually starved to death. That would be a lovely thing.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.