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Two Faces of the College Board
The drive for financial success now dominates its current direction

By Bob Laird


 
The recent controversy over the SAT I between the University of California and the College Board, which owns the test, demonstrated once again the superior political and public relations skills of the Board. In February 2001, Richard Atkinson, then-president of the university, recommended that the University of California drop the use of the SAT I. A little more than two years later, however, the university ended up embracing a revised form of the test, leaving the College Board in a stronger position than ever. The Board's market share in the competitive world of testing will remain intact, and its revenue stream from the SAT I will increase sharply because the revised test will carry a much higher price tag.

Any university's relationship with the College Board is complicated. On the basest level, each party wants to use the other to serve its own fundamental ends. The Board wants to use the university to reaffirm its legitimacy and to advance its own interests, not least of which is continued, preferably expanded, use of its revenue products, such as the SAT I and SAT II tests and the Advanced Placement program.

As Nicholas Lemann ("The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy") has pointed out, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) established its second national office in Berkeley in 1947 in a carefully calculated attempt to capture the vast income potential of the California market. The University of California, in its turn, adopted in 1968 three SAT II tests (then called Achievement Tests) as part of its freshman admissions requirements, largely to gain some of the prestige associated with Ivy League colleges and universities, which already required SAT IIs. UC Berkeley then used the Board to help justify its admissions practices and to conduct research on a scale that Berkeley itself would have found difficult to undertake.

The College Board oscillates constantly between the magnetic poles of wanting to do good and wanting to do well. On the one hand, it wishes to be-and is, some of the time-a high-minded public policy organization that influences national and state policymaking to the benefit of all students. It has a genuine commitment to advancing the opportunities for all students and to strengthening the weakest and most disadvantaged schools across the country. At the same time, it is a market animal that competes with ACT and other test-making companies; with Kaplan, Princeton Review, and other test-prep companies; and with other publishers of college guides and related materials.

In its high-minded form, the Board has sponsored very important research and policy analysis groups, including the National Task Force on Minority High Achievement (convened in January 1997) and, in February 2002, a 37-member Blue Ribbon Panel on Student Financial Aid that has focused on the continuing financial barriers that prevent many low-income students from attending and graduating from college.

A month earlier, the Board had sponsored a national conference in Washington, D.C., that brought together leading scholars from across the country to present their research on expanded measures and predictors of academic success for potential use in college admissions. In addition, the ETS board does extremely valuable research on their own and will work with a campus like UC Berkeley on that campus' own research agenda.

The College Board also is the best of the professional organizations for college counselors and advisors who work in high schools and for college and university admissions and financial aid staff. It carries the most political weight and pulls the best presenters and speakers to its National Forum. Some of the senior managers of the College Board are remarkable people-smart, open, and deeply committed to the common good.

But in its more venal form, the Board pursues its revenue streams vigorously and relentlessly. When Gaston Caperton, a former two-term governor of West Virginia, became president of the Board in 2000, the marketing and business side of the Board was fairly stagnant. Caperton stunned many longtime employees of the Board by firing or forcing into retirement a significant number of mid- and high-level program managers and vice presidents. Now, the needle has swung sharply toward achieving maximum revenue, and the Board's venal streak throbs and pulses powerfully.

In 2001, for example, the Board bought MyRoad, an internet college and career advising tool, which the Board then began to market aggressively to high schools all over the country. The College Board redefined its regional staff to serve less as advisors to high school counselors and more as sales people. The internal language of the Board also shifted, suddenly including corporate jargon such as "picking the low-hanging fruit," "pipelining," "interoperability," "incented," and, my favorite, "threaded discretion group."

The fact that the College Board and ETS, a de facto arm of the College Board, have always been nonprofit entities has protected both companies to some extent from criticism of their aggressive pursuit of revenue. An early indicator of this more aggressive market stance occurred in 1994, when ETS bought $1.5 million of stock in Sylvan Learning Systems with an option to buy another $4 million at the same price. According to Goldie Blumenstyk, writing in the March 12, 1999 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, ETS by that date held 638,000 shares of stock in Sylvan Learning Systems worth almost $20 million.

In 1996, Nancy Cole, President of ETS, was given a seat on Sylvan's board of directors. Although the stock purchase gave ETS less than two percent of Sylvan stock, the deal put the College Board, which owns the SAT I, and ETS, which produces the SAT I, in the upper ring of Capitalist Heaven because, together, they now owned both the SAT I test and part of a company that provided expensive test preparation services to students. ETS subsequently sold its Sylvan stock, in large part because of the criticism the acquisition had generated from high school counselors, college admissions officers, and other higher education professionals.

The College Board also started down that same slippery conflict-of-interest slope. In 1998 it established EssayPrep, in essence an online coaching service that enabled students, for a fee, to take a practice SAT II or AP writing test and have it scored by the same people who score the actual tests. Widespread criticism of conflict of interest and hypocrisy (since the Board's position has been that its tests are not susceptible to coaching) caused the Board to subsequently abandon EssayPrep.

Proving the acuity of its original decision to open its second office in California, ETS currently holds the contract for the new California High School Exit Examination, and, in April 2002, the California State Board of Education awarded the company a three-year contract to administer the California Achievement Test, an extensive testing program that compares the performance of California students to students across the country. That contract, in turn, positions ETS to gain a third major testing contract in California-for the testing program which will assess the performance of California students measured against the state's curriculum standards.

Shortly after the Board's purchase of MyRoad, ETS created a for-profit subsidiary company, ETS K-12 Works. ETS could not resist competing for the millions and millions of dollars that will flow to testing companies as a result of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act that requires national testing of every student in grades three through eight. Stephen Metcalf in the January 28, 2002, issue of The Nation, provides a careful and detailed look at what the Bush policy means for testing companies.

This for-profit step by ETS was in some ways presaged by the College Board's decision about two years earlier to create a commercial website, called collegeboard.com, and then to drop its original collegeboard.org website. In January 2001, just three months after the Board had signed a one-year extension of its contract with ETS, the testing company announced it was investing $15 million in collegeboard.com.

The Board's direct move to unadorned commercialism, however, was met with deep concern and skepticism among the high school counselors and college and university admissions officers who make up much of the College Board's individual members, and Caperton had to spend several months travelling the country trying to assuage his constituents.

In January 2003, the Board announced it was abandoning its blatantly commercial venture-not because of the objections of the Board's membership, but because it had never made a profit. The Board had been unable to attract enough venture capital to allow the enterprise to compete successfully with Kaplan, Inc. and the Princeton Review.

This drive to do well commercially dominates the current direction of the College Board. And, in addition to the K-12 standardized test contracts held by ETS, California is the single most important market for College Board products. The three products most important to this income total are the SAT I, the SAT II, and the Advanced Placement programs.

The UC requirement of three SAT II tests from each of its freshman applicants has been important to the Board ever since the university adopted that requirement in 1968, especially in light of two facts: First, many students take more than the three SAT II tests required by UC as they move through high school; and, second, students often repeat the SAT II writing test or one of the SAT II math tests, since UC does not penalize students for repeats.

In addition, the university's decision in the mid-1980s to grant an extra grade point for honors-level high school courses in the calculation of student grade point averages for UC helped trigger a huge expansion in the AP program in California. From 1985 to 2001, the number of AP exams taken by California students increased from 42,950 to 259,901-a growth rate of more than 600 percent. At $78 a pop in 2002 (subtracting the $7 per test that goes to the administering high school), the AP testing program in California alone generated about $20 million in revenue for the College Board. For the 2002-03 academic year, California accounted for 11.4 percent of all SAT I tests taken, 34.4 percent of all SAT II tests taken, and 18.3 percent of AP exams taken worldwide.

Atkinson's proposal that UC drop the SAT I, of course, had potentially dire economic consequences for the College Board's revenue stream. It is certainly true that the California State University system accounts for far more SAT I takers than does the UC system, but if the UC system were to drop the SAT I, Cal State, as it often does, would feel tremendous pressure to follow the UC lead. So might other colleges and universities across the country. It's one thing when Bowdoin or Bates makes the SAT I optional. It's another matter when a system as large and as prestigious as the University of California does so. And you could bet that Atkinson would lobby his fellow presidents across the country to follow UC's lead.

The proposal to drop the SAT I also came at a time when resistance to the AP program had been growing nationally. For several years, faculty at some selective colleges and universities have been raising the minimum AP exam score for which they will grant specific college-course credit, especially for prerequisite courses in math and the sciences, and increasingly consigning AP college credit to elective units only.

In February 2002, for example, Harvard announced that it would require an AP score of 5 (the highest score possible) in order for entering freshmen to waive required introductory courses. In addition, a number of highly regarded private high schools have dropped the AP Program, preferring to allow their faculty the flexibility to teach a wider range of courses in which they have great interest and expert knowledge.

Another factor is the rapid growth in many parts of the country of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program, a rival to the AP program. Finally, in February 2002, the National Research Council of the National Academies published a report that was highly critical of the math and science courses offered in both the AP and IB programs. Although the AP program is the closest thing we have to a national curriculum, there is no question that it is being rethought by a number of influential policymakers.

The College Board depends to a significant extent on its networks of friends and contacts among high schools, colleges and universities across the country-for that matter, across the world. Board staff members work very hard to develop relationships with key people in those schools and colleges. In some of the Board's regional offices, staff are expected to submit a list of important contacts they intend to cultivate at upcoming conferences and meetings, and certain College Board staff almost always arrange and host small dinner parties at fine restaurants for select high school counselors and college admissions officers during regional and national College Board meetings.

While the Board, as it likes to point out, is a member-driven organization something like the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), it is also an organization with products to sell in highly competitive markets, quite unlike NACAC.

This is where things get sticky for individual admissions deans and directors, and for lots of other college and university staff and faculty. The Board offers-and pays for-remarkable opportunities for selected deans and directors of admissions to participate in interesting national meetings and conferences, often by invitation only, and often held in beautiful places-the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, for example, or the Four Seasons in Toronto. Through these and other activities, the Board not only tries to influence policy at a national level but also offers opportunities and connections that can greatly advance a person's career and, put most nakedly, status.

It's a heady experience to sit around a table with the most highly respected deans and directors of admissions in the country and to realize that someone at a high level in the College Board thought you belonged at this table. Similar benefits flow from getting elected to any of the Board's three national leadership councils. And, should you then be elected chair of one of these bodies, you become a member of the Board of Trustees of the College Board during your term in office. These are pretty dazzling honors and, on a narcissistic but very realistic level, they make powerful entries on your resume or curriculum vitae and often lead to very attractive job offers or consulting opportunities.

The difficulty is that the College Board is interested in these officials in part for the skills, experience, knowledge and judgment they may bring to its endeavors, but also in part, and probably more so, in gaining influence with them and, through them, the institution for which they work. It is not a disinterested party, and it has a line of products and services that it not only wishes to sell in increasing volume but also to defend, the SAT I being a current case in point.

Some admissions deans and directors become involved with the Board because they believe that the Board's products are sound and fundamentally important to the admissions process or to the development and improvement of high school curricula. Others are drawn in to Board activities and their accompanying perquisites first and may have a more difficult time separating their evaluation of a specific College Board product, such as the SAT I, from their sense of obligation and belonging that the Board has worked hard to develop. Sorting out your view of the Board's individual products from your sense of obligation, belonging, and hunger for status is a difficult ethical task to face honestly, and one that almost no one talks about candidly.

Not least among the attractions of working with the Board is the opportunity to travel widely-in some cases, all over the world. It is hard to admit how attractive the perks and status are, and the Board never says, in so many words, "In return for your trip to Shanghai or Myanmar, we expect you to support our products." It is done much more by making friendships, by including you in important meetings and conferences in extraordinary locations at the Board's expense, and by building a subtle sense of obligation, so that it would be hard to disappoint such nice and generous people who have done so much for you.

And it is certainly possible to tell yourself that you are doing good, in addition to doing well, by providing key information to people who may have a hard time getting it, or by influencing national policy direction on issues that are fundamental to advancing an equitable society.

The College Board is highly skilled at working these conflicting values and at getting what it wants. It is important to pay attention to the machinations of the Board and to understand that it always has a complex set of motives at work.


Bob Laird served as director of undergraduate admissions and relations with schools at UC Berkeley from 1993 through 1999.

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National CrossTalk Spring 2004

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