The College Board Monster and Why It’s Time to $lay the Dragon

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Michael J. Hynes, Ed.D.

The American reader beware. I wrote a scathing diatribe about the College Board a few years ago. I have since updated it as we enter testing season this spring.

Before you read my thoughts about the educational sacred cow and standardized testing machine known as the College Board, you should know up front that I am no fan of the College Board CEO/President David Coleman who years ago was the architect of Common Core. I felt this way before the pandemic and feel even more strongly about it now.

Most of us in the educational world know of the Common Core State Standards and the “test focused education reform movement” that accompanied it as a fiasco that plagued American schools.

Mr. Coleman was on the English Language Arts writing team and his good friend and eventual partner at Student Achievement Partners (SAP) Jason Zimba was a leader on the Common Core Mathematics team. Student Achievement Partners is a non-profit organization that researches and develops achievement based assessment standards.

Interesting enough, it was funded in large part by Bill Gates. The final nail in the coffin for me was when I realized Mr. Coleman, his former assistant and Mr. Zimba were founding board members for Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, an organization that lobbies for standards driven educational reform.

Do you see a pattern?

Years later Mr. Coleman still leads the College Board money-making machine and this educational monolith is the church where most public schools worship several times a year.

For the reader who doesn’t know what The College Board is: it is the ultimate gatekeeper and judge-jury-executioner for millions of students each year who dream to enter college and it literally is a hardship for many families due to the test taking expense. Schools and families have no other choice because there is no other game in town, aside from a student taking the ACT exam.

The College Board claims to be a non-profit organization, but it’s hard to take that claim seriously when its exam fees for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), Advanced Placement test (AP), services for late registration, score verification services and a multitude of other related fees are costing families and schools millions of dollars each year.

Eleven years ago this “non-profit” made a profit of $55 million and paid nineteen College Board Executives’ salaries that ranged from three hundred thousand dollars to over one million dollars a year. That trend continues today. Cost aside, it is hard to fathom and understand how the College Board has claimed a monopoly-like status over our public school system.

Over the years it has literally convinced school administrators, school board trustees, teachers, parents and students they can’t live without what they sell. They sell classes and tests to schools like Big Pharma sells pills to consumers. They sell as much as they can and jack up the prices just enough where most people won’t complain. They have convinced my beloved public education system, the university system and pretty much the solar system that if students don’t take the PSAT, the SAT and now multiple Advanced Placement tests during a child’s tenure in high school, then those students won’t be competitive and have the same opportunities to be successful in life as the ones who drink the College Board Kool-Aide.

I fear too many of us have bought this story hook, line and sinker without many of us asking the question…why and how did we let this get so out of control?

We now know there are over 800 colleges (and counting) that are SAT optional or flexible. We also know that AP classes and tests have doubled over the past ten+ years. Over four million tests are administered each year. If you do the simple math (4 million tests x $94.00 a test = over $376 million a year). And that’s just the AP exam…the money from the AP exams goes to the College Board and a students’ score is sent to the student but they never know what questions they got right or wrong, they just receive a score of 1-5. The reality is many schools get great marks for enrolling more AP students and the College Board makes a ton of money off this arrangement. What a sham.

The problem I have with College Board is the effect and infection it’s created on the climate within school systems and their respective communities. We have reached a crescendo of students and families believing that “more is more” when it comes to prepping for the PSAT/SAT tests. The SAT (with the optional essay) can be taken several times throughout a student’s high school career. If you do the simple math (1.7 million tests x $64.50 a test = $109 million a year). This does not include the other fees attached to the SAT test or the prep books or courses a student may take. If your child is applying to many colleges, you will pay for each score sent to them.

Here is an example of how much it costs for SAT prep courses:

There are some SAT prep centers that cost upwards of $1800 per in-person course to online courses that cost up to $1400 per course. One-on-One tutoring can cost up to $200 an hour. This all adds up very fast. More important, how is this not seen as an equity concern? Many families can’t afford this type of assistance and since so much is at stake for successful college acceptance, its criminal unless the system truly changes.

As a school superintendent I see and hear about many families hiring tutors for PSAT tests (sometimes starting in eighth grade) and many young men and women taking AP classes because they are “weighted” which bolsters their academic transcript and grade point average.

Most troublesome to me is when I’m told by families that enroll their children in multiple AP classes each year; taking so many AP classes provides a “badge of honor” for both the family and student. In some school districts you have communities that have bred and unleashed a “Keep up with the Joneses” phenomenon. All at the expense for what?

If this is true, what are the unintended consequences? Mental health has never been more important. When students take multiple AP classes and have four hours of homework and skip lunch every day, who suffers in the end? When a student feels like they have to take multiple AP classes to keep their class ranking high and take as many classes as possible to receive college credit so they potentially save money when they go to college, what are they losing in the present moment when they are still in high school?

I believe we have more stressed out and anxious children in our high schools than ever before.

This is a big reason why.

I offer some sincere observations sprinkled in with some facts…

1. AP classes have a lot of material with not much time to teach and truly understand it. Don’t get me wrong, many of the courses are wonderful and stretch our student’s worldview and cognitive abilities, but the courses end in early May. They don’t have the same amount of time as other students who take courses throughout the year. In NY they have almost two months of school left!

2.  Students are over burdening themselves with the belief that 8-10 AP courses guarantees them access to a high performing university or academic scholarships. I don’t believe that’s true. One thing I can guarantee this type of course load will provide is 4 hours or more of homework every night and not enough time for students to take electives they will enjoy.
Also, a friend of mine and I agree that the college acceptance process is so badly and deeply damaged, that kids should know that lots of AP classes will not help them as much as they think.

3.  If schools had the courageous conversation to eliminate class ranking, eliminate the weighting of AP classes and mandate lunch for every student, I believe we will have healthier and happier kids. U.S. News and World Report must stop using AP courses as part of their criteria in ranking the top high schools in America. If they care about college readiness so much, how about looking at more important factors for success such as a student’s emotional, social and physical growth. It would paint a much more effective predictor of college readiness and future success.

4. Schools must do a better job of promoting predictors of success that are not affiliated with the College Board. Universities want to see that students are more than AP test taking machines:

  • 1. GPA (grade point average) is a much better predictor of college success
  • Rich and eclectic electives – take risks and explore new opportunities
  • Play a sport – physical growth is just as important as academic growth
  • Join clubs – a great way for students to get their social and emotional needs met
  • Join outside school organizations in the community – fosters empathy
  • Work after school part time – teaches responsibility

A few years ago, Mr. David Coleman said, “Never give someone only one chance to be great.”

I couldn’t agree more but we know the College Board stands to make millions of dollars off of a child’s second chance by taking the SAT or AP test(s) multiple times a year.

If the College Board is really looking to provide better opportunities for students, why not make the test fee reasonable? I know they offer reduced pricing for some hardships but why not make a flat fee for all students? I thought the purpose of a non-profit was to not make a profit…especially off of children.

Finally, if information needs to be sent from the College Board to anywhere the family needs, make it a free service.

I have a problem when non-educators make decisions in my educational arena. David Coleman and the College Board are not educators, they are business-people. As a parent, would you bring your child to a businessperson instead of a paediatrician if your child was sick? Would you find it odd that your child’s teacher or principal was a businessperson and not an educator?

So the obvious next question is: why is it widely accepted that we have business-people who run an educational institution that has such a significant influence over our children’s futures, a families’ pocketbook and total domination over the last two-three years of your child’s high school experience?

Mr. Coleman, please help me understand how these tests have not been placed on hold during this pandemic. Students are fighting for their lives. They are living in incredibly difficult times where the importance of mental health is at an all-time high but our children’s mental health is at an all-time low.

The College Board has fleeced us all and its time we fight back against our over reliance on this monopoly.


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