The College Board and You

Ryan Neely

As you progress through your high school career, one organization that will likely have some impact on you is the College Board. They are best known for producing the SAT and the Advanced Placement (AP) Program. That said, this organization and its large degree of control over our educational system have faced some popular criticism.

When evaluating its merits, it is necessary to understand what the College Board is and what it aims to accomplish. First off, they are a nonprofit organization, meaning that all excess revenue is funneled back into the organization instead of given to owners or shareholders (which they don’t have). So, in theory, their only goal should be to help high school students prepare for higher education. 

However, employees still do have an incentive to maintain and grow revenue in order to preserve their jobs. So when we see people who’ve taken the SAT being strongly encouraged to take it again on the College Board’s website, the excessive amount of PSATs being offered (now as early as eighth grade), and students being required to pay for AP exams before seniors even know if they will be going to a college that accepts the credit from them, it begs the question of whether these decisions are truly in the interest of students.

In addition, the College Board uses the Student Search Service to sell (though it prefers the word “license”) the information of students to colleges that might want to send them some nice spam emails, as well as some good old-fashioned physical junk mail. This is optional for people taking these tests, but the flowery language it uses distorts the fact that this is, once again, perhaps not in the benefit of students.

That isn’t to say that the College Board is producing nothing of value. Far from it. When colleges are deciding which applicants are the most capable, it is important that they have a measure that can directly compare the abilities of students from many different schools across the country. GPAs are also useful for this, but since there is no universal standard for which grade corresponds to which level of understanding, they don’t tell the whole story.

That said, the validity of the SAT has faced some intense criticism over the years. However, we must acknowledge that many of the old problems with it have actually been solved. A major overhaul in 2016 changed it to be more relevant to what students are learning in school, as opposed to previous incarnations which tested skills that, to many, didn’t seem relevant to academic ability. In addition, the ability to practice for free via Khan Academy made preparation materials extremely accessible, eliminating (to some extent) the divide between people who had the resources to prepare and those who didn’t.

With that in mind, it seems awfully strange that the “test optional” movement has picked up more steam than ever. The SAT is constantly being portrayed as a barrier to higher education that benefits the rich and powerful, since they tend to get higher scores, and some colleges are responding by placing it out of favor in their admissions processes. But then, of course, we must ask the question of why those disparities exist. It isn’t because those sheets of paper and the machines scanning them have any preference to who succeeds. It’s because some people just aren’t in situations where they can be successful academically. The SAT isn’t creating those problems. It’s revealing them.

Besides, even the colleges that aren’t test-optional are always quick to stress their “holistic admissions”. If they think that students have qualities that aren’t shown on their standardized test scores, that the world has wronged them, or that there just aren’t enough people like them on their campus, they’ll adjust their decision accordingly. Ironically, this too could be considered unfair, because it means that objective measures are losing weight to subjective ones. Just look at the controversy started when the College Board itself began to create a tool to standardize the process of judging who made the best use of the resources available to them. That said, given that colleges have attached themselves quite heavily to the idea that they need to look beyond pure academics to see the true value of a student, I’d say that they would be better off having more information at their disposal than less.

Furthermore, it’s important to stress that the College Board isn’t exactly a monopoly. In the case of the SAT, their competition exists in the form of the ACT, a competing exam. In fact, there was a brief period in which more people were taking the ACT than the SAT. The SAT was later able to surpass it by making the aforementioned changes to its design, many of which made it more similar to the ACT. This year, the ACT is going to add even more improvements, such as online testing, which will deliver results in a matter of days rather than weeks. As we can see, this competition is placing pressure on both to evolve.

Now, for the AP Program, this competition isn’t quite as direct. There is a similar program called International Baccalaureate, but it isn’t very well known in the US. (Though they do have it at Cumberland Valley). Other students can choose dual enrollment as an alternative, and that will provide all of the same benefits. Still, many choose to take AP classes because of cost and convenience, meaning that it is at some level succeeding because of its merits.

By using these tools effectively, high schoolers can give themselves a leg-up when preparing for their future. Although some may be frustrated that the scores they ultimately get aren’t what they wanted, there is a staggering amount of accessible practice material. 

For the SAT, I’d recommend taking the full tests on Khan Academy, since those will give you almost the exact same experience as the real thing. That, combined with the other question sets that appear in response to questions that you miss will familiarize you with what you will need to be able to do. Khan Academy states on their website: “20 hours of practice on Khan Academy is associated with an average 115-point score increase from the PSAT/NMSQT to the SAT, nearly double the average gain without Khan”.

For the AP classes, since the curriculum is shared across the entire country, you can supplement what you’ve learned in class with lots of Quizlets that people have made, or those practice books if that’s your thing. In fact, the College Board is going to be creating some resources of their own due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Obviously none of that is going to change the fact that people are ultimately going to get different scores. However, let’s not forget that the purpose of these scores isn’t to show the world how special you are. But that’s the idea that people internalize when they see how selective colleges are idolized. It makes them think that they need to get a perfect SAT score and take 5 AP classes in order to join the upper echelon of society. I think that the frustration towards the College Board might be a bit misdirected. Snobbishness is the real problem, and arguing who deserves to be sent to the top isn’t the solution.