The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meet the man behind the new SAT: ‘I’m in the anxiety field.’

College Board President David Coleman in his office in lower Manhattan. (Yana Paskova for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — From the perspective of students, admission tests are at best a nerve-wracking chore. At worst they seem a scary barrier to their future goals. David Coleman gets that.

“I’m in the anxiety field,” the president of the College Board acknowledged this week in an interview with The Washington Post. But he said he hopes the new SAT, which debuts nationally Saturday, will help students channel that angst into something productive.

SAT enters a new era this week

“Unproductive anxiety is when you’re not entirely certain what’s on the exam altogether. There’s a sense of mysteries and trickiness, and so you’re vibrating,” Coleman said. Far better, he said, for the students to know well in advance the format of the test and the material it covers. He draws a comparison to sports.

“What athlete does not know the terms of the game before the game?” Coleman said. “An athlete has something called productive practice.” That doesn’t mean players aren’t nervous before the whistle. But they “manage their anxiety” through repetition and practice, Coleman said. The new SAT is designed as a test of high school achievement, aligned to the curriculum more than ever before, with less arcane vocabulary, no guessing penalty and fewer possible answers per multiple-choice question (four instead of the previous five).

The test takes three hours, not counting the essay, and the maximum score, once 2400, is back to 1600. It is more reading-intensive than before, and demands more analysis of evidence. The essay is now optional but twice as long as before — 50 minutes instead of 25. The prompt for the essay, the College Board said, will always ask a student to read and respond to a passage, analyzing how the author of the passage builds an argument to persuade the audience.

All of these shifts aim to steer students away from “test preparation” and toward the practice of skills learned in the classroom.

“To strike a blow against anxiety, you have to make the test utterly open and then you have to make the tools of practice free,” Coleman said. That’s why the College Board teamed with the online Khan Academy to provide free tutorials on the SAT, he said.

Hundreds of thousands of students have signed up. What effect the Khan initiative is having remains to be seen, although many public school leaders applaud it.

Still, skeptics of the College Board abound.

Some pointed out this week that the owner of the SAT was planning to slip extra questions into some of the exams to be administered. They wondered whether the College Board was being candid with students about this move. These extra items, part of a process known as “pre-testing,” won’t count on a student’s score. The pre-testing is intended to help develop questions for upcoming exams. “So we can ensure future forms of the SAT are technically sound,” said Cyndie Schmeiser, the College Board’s chief of assessment. She said the procedure affects “a small proportion” of those who take the test. 

Others complained about a late-announced security measure. Some who registered for the Saturday test, apparently including many test-prep consultants, were told this week that they would not be allowed to take the SAT until May. The College Board said the postponement affected a small number who were not taking the test for its intended purpose: applying for college admissions, scholarships, financial aid or related programs. 

Still others have a more general criticism. They see the nonprofit College Board as a big, opaque business and the new SAT as, essentially, a product launch to compete with a rival that has higher market share: the ACT.

This view bothers Coleman. Asked about it, he stood up in his office, paced and considered his response. He acknowledged that it can be hard for outsiders to know his or the College Board’s motives. But he insisted that the nonprofit mission is real. “I can do things, I really can, because they are good and just,” he said. “You could accuse me of not doing sufficient things that are good and just. But it is my obligation to do so, and it is a wonderful thing.”

Coleman cited the Khan initiative as an example. “You could have thought that test prep is our natural business,” he said. “If I was a pure businessman, why not expand into it?” Why give it away for free? “The facts of the case are, I destroyed several sources of revenue at one stroke — all that test prep we could have charged for.”

The ACT recently launched a revised online test prep service. It’s available for free to students from low-income families but otherwise costs $39.95 a year.

Coleman also cited the College Board’s aggressive promotion of fee waivers for low-income students to take its exams, to apply to college and to apply for financial aid. “Do you think that was beneficial to my economics?” he said. “How could it be?”

Of course, the College Board has many other ways to raise revenue, including state contracts. It is aggressively seeking contracts with states to provide the SAT in public schools around the country. The ACT has led in this competition for several years — offering its test to all 11th-graders in public high schools in 16 states this spring and in many individual school systems around the country — but the College Board is gaining ground.

It recently wrested from ACT testing contracts in Michigan, Colorado and Illinois, and it just launched the SAT in public schools in New Hampshire, Connecticut and portions of New York City. The District of Columbia also contracts with the College Board to provide students the SAT in its public schools.

Another revenue source: student information. The College Board provides that valuable data to colleges, for a fee, to help them identify potential applicants. Students agree to this, and they can opt out. Coleman denied that the data is sold to colleges. “I want to be super-clear,” he said. “We license that information for a narrow purpose, which is for scholarships or going to college.”

The College Board also operates the Advanced Placement program, the SAT subject tests and the PSAT/NMSQT tests of high school students, as well as a questionnaire for college aid applicants called the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE — all significant revenue sources.

The College Board has faced numerous complaints in recent years about customer service. Cheating episodes in Asia have led to delayed score reports for many international students. Last June printing errors on the SAT test booklet led the College Board to invalidate results on two sections of the test. The College Board concluded the final scores from that test administration were reliable, but it offered students a chance to retake the test for free.

“We have to continue to get better at serving our wide range of users, from parents to students to counselors in schools,” Coleman told The Post in an email. “We are making major investments in customer service.  It is challenging to innovate at this scale when everything has to be exactly right. As we have improved what we provide to educators, students and parents, we have also had a few technical issues and delays.

“We know some school counselors have been particularly frustrated and we regret every inconvenience they have faced; they already have such demanding workloads and we should be making things easier, not harder. The good news is more help is on the way very soon, and we are making significant investments to help counselors and other educators.”

Coleman, 46, came to the College Board in 2012 after helping to lead the development of the Common Core State Standards. Those standards, for what students should learn in math and English language arts from kindergarten through high school, have been widely adopted but are deeply controversial.

For example, some critics contend the Common Core puts too much emphasis on nonfiction and not enough on literature. Coleman has said that this criticism is a misunderstanding and that the standards give plenty of weight to Shakespeare and other classics of literature. A graduate of Yale University, Coleman studied English at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He dropped references to philosopher Immanuel Kant and poet John Milton into his interview with The Post.

Common Core State Standards in English spark war over words

Asked about the relationship between the Common Core and the new SAT, Coleman played down the link.

“We didn’t look at those standards as the foundation for the exam,” he said. “We looked first at what is most commonly taught in high school and the first year of college.” He said the SAT dovetails with curriculum in Common Core states and in those that have not adopted the Common Core, such as Virginia and Texas. The test, he said, draws on “the features of those state standards that are most commonly essential for readiness in college.”

From his 17th-floor window in a high-rise on Vesey Street in downtown Manhattan, Coleman has a direct view of New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School, a selective public school. Coleman himself is a Stuyvesant graduate. He said he took the SAT once. His father advised him to review vocabulary beforehand. “My total preparation was looking at a couple old test forms,” he said. “And I had some flash cards.”

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