NACAC 2016: Observations On Presentations About the SAT and ACT
Coleman, who took over the reins of the College Board four years ago after leading the effort to promulgate the Common Core standards seemed to go into the session with a plan, and the plan was to admit responsibility early and often for the College Board’s failures in implementing 2015’s many changes. The first question set the tone: “So David, it hasn’t been a good year…” Coleman gave a great answer that was clearly well planned: “Thanks to all of you who do this hard work. Frankly, we made your work a lot harder last year and I’m sorry about that…This was not ok….When the College Board betrays your ability to help kids it’s a harm. It has real impact on people’s lives.”
Q: Why no fee waivers for the CSS Profile (an extra, fee-based tool some colleges use for financial aid decisions)? “It’s not fair. But I can announce that all students who qualify will automatically get CSS Profile waivers. It’s wrong to keep asking families to say they are poor and to prove it for small amounts of money. We will do better. This is effective now.” This was a wonderful remark that showed Coleman’s fundamental humanity, and it’s a shame that the audience treated it so skeptically.
Q. Regarding the ACT’s disavowal of the concordance tables between the new SAT, old SAT and ACT, how should we counsel our kids? “Concordance is necessary, but a necessary evil….I have good news for you. We and ACT have come to an agreement, and we will work together with all deliberate speed to have a new concordance for 2018.” I’m not sure if anyone else noticed the quote from the slightly less famous Brown v. Board of Education II opinion, but to me “all deliberate speed” is the classic example of an oxymoron; I can only hope this time it works better than it did in the fifties.
Q. He was asked if he’d read an article in The Atlantic about school counselors. His response should have been a great example of solidarity with the audience, but it seemed to ring hollow: “Half of what we do is to help students grow and show their work to get ready for college. The other half is to propel kids to opportunities. If we leave futures up to chance, we have lost…When we get our problems under control, I want to become a central spokesman for the role of counseling.”
Marten Roorda took over the helm of the ACT in 2015 after previously running one of Europe’s largest testing firms in his native Netherlands. His presentation struck this former public speaking teacher as one of the weakest I’ve ever seen. Roorda has a deep, soothing voice with an accent that isn’t hard to understand, but that definitely takes concentration to fully understand. He employed a PowerPoint slide show, but the text was far too small for me to read in my seat at the rear of the room. Worst of all, Roorda made next to no eye contact and simply read a speech. Joyce Smith, the CEO of NACAC introduced the speaker and tried to set the tone: “It’s Marten’s first NACAC, so please be gentle to him” she implored. Unfortunately, he does not seem to have done any research into NACAC before coming, as his speech ignored the fact that the audience was made up of people who work with students and families who want to go to college. Instead, he focused on the growth of the ACT’s market share, and the development of even more tests.
“You don’t know about me,” he began “but if you know anything about ACT, you know we like numbers. Let me tell you a new number….64%. That is the percentage of 2016 seniors who took the ACT. For the 12th straight year an increase in users, and for the 5th straight year we are the most popular test.”
That seemed like an interesting start. He said that the ACT was created in 1958 not as an aptitude test (a dig at what the A used to stand for in SAT) but as one to help with placement. “To include, not exclude”. Sadly, he didn’t really return to this theme again. He spent the next 20 minutes describing companies that ACT has recently purchased and spun off into the new “ACT Assessment Technologies”, recent experts in psychometrics that he has hired as part of his goal to “build a team of world-class scientists”, and new tests that the ACT will be rolling out soon. Over a dozen people walked out during this session, one grumbling under her breath “I’ve never had a bigger waste of time in my life”.
Roorda did take questions at the end, and while he demonstrated more empathy in this part of the program, it may have been a case of too little, too late. When a teacher from a Native American school in Washington described her students driving 90 miles to a test center only to have their (ACT approved) calculators disqualified by the proctor, Roorda was genuinely disturbed and promised that his team would look into the situation. On the other hand, when a college counselor from New Hampshire asked a follow up question about increasing the number of test centers so rural students wouldn’t have to travel so far, he was told “America is a big place, we have 6 to 7 thousand test centers across the country and more centers will increase costs. We want to keep prices lower. But if we get a signal that in an area there is too much travel we could look at [it]. Students should communicate with us about this.” I can’t imagine how much more costly it could be to have more schools host the ACT, and if it makes life easier for the test takers, it seems desirable, but what do I know?
While keeping costs lower may be a concern, when he was asked if the ASPIRE and PreACT tests are “a price grab”, all he said was “the ASPIRE and PreACT are totally different and not comparable” but implied that schools should administer both to students (along with a new set of assessments that start as early as 3rd grade).
Roorda may not be a cold technocrat, but it was definitely how he came across to the audience. Especially in contrast with Coleman’s almost uncomfortable levels of empathy, Roorda seemed to be distant and unconcerned with nuance. I’ll give an example. When Coleman was asked about the growth of “test optional” colleges and universities, his answer was warm, human and thoughtful:
“I don’t want to seem to disparage schools that choose to be test optional. I understand the “humanity” to not force kids to take a test that they won’t do well on. But the SAT today measures the few things that are impossible to catch up on in college if you don’t know them (literacy, reading, certain math). It is very rare for a remedial student to catch up in college. Less than 1 of 10 without basic math can do college chemistry. We can make the test optional, but don’t make the skill assessment optional.”
That’s a good answer. Roorda merely said “We think colleges are missing an opportunity by going test optional. More, objective information is good and badly needed, both for schools and students. Grades may not translate into readiness.” Considering that many colleges that make submission of standardized tests optional do so because they find a student’s transcript to be the best predictor of college success, this seems to be a needless insult to the audience. Along the same lines, he also criticized grade inflation at the college and high school levels and predicted that the ACT score might someday serve as the proxy for “bright, engaged and aware” that a college degree “used to signal” but no longer does.
One further question about test optional admissions came from Jay Rosner, another Princeton Review staffer. He asked “regarding your statement that ‘more information is better’, more information that shows the same disparities in race and economics isn’t more useful, is it?” Roorda’s answer was, if not surprising coming from a researcher, definitely jarring to my ears:
“I feel strongly about this. We must be thankful that a test can expose what is wrong with society. We are not trying to kill the messenger. Standardized tests should not be blamed, we should keep highlighting gaps. It is statistically not sound to say that our tests are biased.”
He’s right that exposing societal ills is beneficial, but millions of students don’t take the ACT to diagnose America’s racial and economic problems, they take them to go to college (or, increasingly, as a measure of their public high school’s success in preparing students for “college and careers”). If the makers of the ACT are aware of disparities among different groups in the population, why don’t they try to equalize for that in their tests?