How the College Board and ACT can stay in business and actually help the students they claim to have been helping all along

Now that California has put the ACT and SAT in the ICU, I suspect there will be many meetings in the coming weeks about how the companies remain viable going forward. The COVID-19 pandemic had already struck a body blow, of course, and there have been suggestions that the companies will have to dramatically restructure and reorganize to stay in business.

Of course, don’t sign the death certificates just yet. College Board, especially, has deep connections to state legislators and legislatures, and I’m sure they’ve both begun working back channels to minimize damage in California and shore up support in states that want to be the anti-California (looking at you, Texas and Florida.) They also have a Freddy Krueger-esque ability to bounce back, as witnessed by the quick pivot on AP (reports from the trenches notwithstanding) and announcements about take-home standardized tests.

Here’s what I would suggest (I doubt anyone there pays any attention to what I say, so this may just be an exercise in catharsis for me, but I’m doing it anyway.) Stop focusing on single, high-stakes, norm-referenced tests, and focus on actual assessment of academic achievement. The two things are very different.

The typical standardized test sorts people: If a thousand people take an ACT, for instance, by design, ten will score at the top (the 99th percentile), and ten will score at every percentile down the scale (ten at the 98th, and 97th, etc.) As Anthony Carnevale, formerly of ETS said, “In order for these tests to work, you have to set out to trick people.”

These sorting tests–especially given their high-stakes nature–will always favor those who have the resources to plan and prepare for them. In other words, they hurt the people The Agencies claim to be helping. It’s why so many people are pissed off at them, and if they’d been listening all these years, they’d know that. In some sense, the same is true of AP Exams: Wealthy districts have the resources to ensure their students are prepared, and the dual high-stakes nature of them (college credit and college admission advantage) makes them especially appealing to already privileged people.

Here’s my suggestion: We all know what a student should learn in algebra I or algebra II, for instance, and how students should progress through those classes. Develop achievement (not norm-referenced) assessments teachers can use to measure progress on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. If everyone learns, everyone can get passing grades, or even perfect scores. Make low-stakes tests, that don’t get attached to the academic record, and that actually help students learn and help teachers figure out what students aren’t learning. Maybe put it in a format like Khan Academy, which is a great resource for instruction, but not necessarily for learning the tricks of the test.

Work with actual teachers to determine what should be measured, rather than creating a curriculum and selling it to districts. Students, parents, teachers, and schools get good feedback on progress, and the results of the tests are not stamped indelibly on the psyches of students forever.

Maybe these companies can’t veer in this direction. Maybe they’re too ingrained and set in their ways to even think differently about measuring learning rather than sorting into buckets. But if they’re going to be forced out of admissions, and they want to put their measurement experience to good use rather than exacerbating inequality, and they want to stay in business, maybe they need to move over or stop trying to make college admissions tests happen.

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