Recently in The Atlantic, David Coleman, CEO of the College Board, reflected on the hoops that students are jumping through to get admitted to college and recommended a renewed focus on what really matters. Excerpts of his piece appear below:
The crazed pursuit of college admissions helps no one thrive. And while the Varsity Blues admissions scandal shines a light on families that break the rules, it’s time to consider the unhappiness of families that play by them. While competition for seats may be inevitable, students scramble to do ever more to get into college—and give away more of their childhood to do so. This competition might seem a problem only for middle class and wealthy families. But students of modest means suffer most when applying to college becomes an endless list of tasks requiring time and other resources.
As the CEO of the College Board, I see this arms race up close. We administer the SAT, a test that helps admissions officers assess the reading, writing, and math skills of students across the country and around the world. We also administer the Advanced Placement program, which helps students earn credit for college-level work they do while in high school. We know these tools to be useful, but we also see how they can contribute to the arms race. The College Board can and will do more to limit the excesses.
Advanced Placement can help students discover and pursue a passion, but not if too many courses suffocate their time. Some students cram their schedules with AP courses to burnish their applications. While data show that taking up to five AP classes over the course of high school helps students succeed in college, there is no evidence that more than that is better. We therefore recently announced that taking more than five AP courses should provide no advantage in admissions. Students can take more AP if they want, but not to get into college.
And we need a far humbler view of the SAT. When the SAT began, it was an aptitude measure designed to gauge intellectual potential. We revised the exam in 2014, and the era of trying to measure aptitude is finally over. The new SAT assesses nothing tricky or mysterious: a focused set of reading, writing, and math skills students learn in school and use widely in college. The new SAT does not tell students or anyone else how smart students are, or how capable they are of learning new things. It only says something about whether students have yet attained the reading, writing, and math skills they will use to gain knowledge in college or career training; it makes no statement about what they are capable of learning.
We need to change the culture around exams such as the SAT. They should never be more than one factor in an admissions decision. Low scores should never be a veto on a student’s life. Students should have confidence that if they practice their math and reading skills, they will improve, which is exactly what we are seeing when students practice for free on Khan Academy. Students should take an exam once and, if they don’t like their scores, practice and take the test once more. If they still don’t like their scores, we should offer many other ways for them to show their strengths to admissions officers.
Let’s fashion a new invitation to higher education. We must invite families to invest in durable excellence rather than fragile perfectionism. Students should sacrifice far less for the sake of getting into college and do much more to thrive within and beyond it.