Guess who thinks there’s more than one problem with the SAT? The man who was recently selected to run the organization that owns the SAT.

That man is David Coleman, who last fall became the ninth College Board president after his stint as co-lead author of the Common Core State Standards.

Coleman’s comments about the SAT were made during an appearance late last year at the Brookings Institution. The event was about standardized testing and the Common Core State Standards. (You can listen to the audio here, read the transcript here, and see excerpts below.)  But the conversation turned to other subjects.

Coleman said he had “problems” with the way the essay portion of the SAT is designed. He criticized some of the vocabulary words on the college admissions exam, saying that they had no real relevance to students’ lives. He also labeled some of the other standardized tests that school districts now give to students as “horrible.”

Here is part of what Coleman said about the SAT at Brookings, from a transcript on the Brookings Institution website:

COLEMAN: Right now, I think there’s a breakthrough that the SAT added writing, because we do want to make the claim that kids need to write to be ready. Like, duh,
right. To be ready for college and career, it obviously includes writing. But I have a problem with the SAT writing. So if you look at the way the SAT assessment is designed, when you write an essay even if it’s an opinion piece, there’s no source information given to you. So in other words, you write like what you’re opinion is on a subject, but there’s no fact on the table. So a friend of mine tutors in Hong Kong, and she was asked by here Hong Kong students, where do you get the examples for the essay? She said, you know, it’s the American way, you make them up. Now I’m all for creativity and innovation, but I don’t think that’s quite the creativity we want to inspire in a generation of youth. That is, if writing is to be ready for the demands of career and college, it must be precise, it must be accurate, it must draw upon evidence. Now I think that is warranted by tons of information we see from surveys of college  professors, from evidence we have from other sources, so I think there is good reason to think about a design of SAT where rather than kids just writing an essay, there’s source material that they’re analyzing.


I think when you think about vocabulary on exams, you know, how SAT words are famous as the words you will never use again? You know, you study them in high school and you’re like, gosh, I’ve never seen this before, and I probably never shall. Why wouldn’t it be the opposite? Why wouldn’t you have a body of language on the SAT that’s the words you most need to know and be ready to use again and again? Words like transform, deliberate, hypothesis, right?

I asked Coleman if he planned to change the writing and vocabulary on the SAT. His e-mail response:

I think the following words on SAT best apply to all changes, including writing and vocabulary:  “Let’s take a look at SAT.  The quality of the texts is high, and the math challenges students to solve unfamiliar problems.  The question facing us once more is can we take it to the next level? I want to be careful to say in a clear voice that any changes in SAT require the team, the trustees, and our partners in higher education to agree.  The real question is can we make a revision of SAT a victory for everyone – more aligned with what colleges need as well as better work for kids.  I think we can.

That means there are likely to be changes in the SAT, which was once the dominant college admissions exam.  This year the ACT for the first time overtook the SAT as the most popular college admissions exam by a margin of a few thousand students

Coleman’s appearance at Brookings was marked by more than his education views. His comments were peppered with a smattering of curse words that surprised some listeners even though it was not the first time he has done this. He famously said at a 2011 conference that the reason that students should read more non-fiction and write from source material is this: “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a s— about what you feel or what you think.”

I asked Coleman about his language and he said in an e-mail:

I think that cussing has sometimes been less than helpful and you can expect it to decline in the future.

So who is David Coleman? Described in this Dana Goldstein piece as a “classicist cum McKinsey consultant cum education reformer,” Coleman has been involved in reform efforts for years through organizations that he started, as well as in tandem with others, such as Michelle Rhee. Some of the highlights from his College Board’s biography:

* Attended Yale, studied English literature at Oxford and classical educational philosophy at Cambridge on a Rhodes Scholarship.

* Worked at McKinsey & Company for years, heading “much of the firm’s pro bono work in education.”

* Founded the Grow Network, described as “an organization committed to making assessment results truly useful for teachers, parents and students” by giving “breakthrough quality reports for parents and teachers as well as individualized learning guides for students.” McGraw-Hill bought Grow in 2005 while he was working there.

* In 2007 he co-founded Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization that has been behind a number of school reforms, including taking a leading role in developing the Common Core standards. He left last fall to become the ninth president of the College Board.

What the biography doesn’t mention is that he worked with Rhee at her anti-union StudentsFirst organization, once serving as treasurer of the organization (you can read more about that here at Ken Libby’s blog. (StudentsFirst doesn’t mention it either on its Web site.)

Coleman was recently embroiled in controversy over what he says was a misinterpretation by educators of the Common Core standards for English and Language Arts. The new standards adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia and expected to be in place by 2014, require that nonfiction texts represent 50 percent of reading assignments in elementary schools, and 70 percent by grade 12. Many English teachers have interpreted that as meaning that their students have to read 70 percent non-fiction, but Coleman and standards co-author Susan Pimentel write this piece in the Huffington Post saying that the 70 percent requirement for informational text is supposed to be across classes and that most of that would be in non English-Language Arts classes.

Coleman clearly comes from the movement that has embraced standardized test-based accountability systems and corporate-style reforms in school districts around the country. His ascension is one more example of the growing influence of these reformers, who have instituted changes based not on research but rather on ideology and have left many schools, which were in need of change, in more distress than ever.

If Coleman is really interested in hearing all voices about changes to the SAT and other issues, that would be a welcome departure from the past.