Kevin: Recently, U.S. colleges reported that only 5% of its participating schools requested standardized test scores in the past school year. This is a drastic decrease from 55% in 2019. It is clear that the pandemic forced a pause on standardized testing practices. While educators and parents have debated the use of standardized testing for years, the disruption over the past two years has accelerated the issue. Has the pandemic marked the end of standardized testing as we know it? What are the reasons behind rethinking these tests and exploring alternative ways of measuring student aptitude? Can we understand students’ aptitudes without standardized testing? And if so, what measurements will we use in the future? This is What I Want To Know, and today I'm joined by David Coleman to find out.
Kevin: David Coleman is the Chief Executive Officer of the College Board, the organization behind the SAT and the Advanced Placement Program. He is passionate about ensuring that all students are prepared for college and career training. David founded the Grow Network to help parents, teachers, and students utilize assessment results. He also cofounded Student Achievement Partners, which played a leading role in developing the Common Core state standards. Today, David joins us to discuss the future of these standardized assessments.
David, welcome to the show.
David: Thank you so much, Kevin, for your invitation.
Kevin: You and I share something, and that is a passion around reading and the importance of reading.
Kevin: You actually started a community program around reading. That was several years ago. But talk a little bit about that and whether or not that helped drive you toward your current role. I do think, David, that so much begins and ends with the love of reading.
David: I was an undergraduate, and there were tutoring programs on campus, but all of them were for after school, and that's just when my courses were because I was quite lazy, so I chose those courses that met late in the afternoon. And so, the only time I could visit this high school, this local high school in New Haven, which was then what was called the inner city in a school that was 98% African American, a few blocks from my campus but rarely visited by students from my college. I guest taught poetry. I went to one of the English teachers there and said, "I can't meet after school, but I love poetry. Could I share my love with your students?" She was kind enough to let me. My first experience was guest teaching Langston Hughes's poem, “A Dream Deferred,” which I'm sure you know.
Kevin: Wow. Yes.
David: And, of course, he ends by saying, "What happens to a dream deferred?" It's that famous line, "Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun or does it explode?" is how the poem ends. Anyway, I asked them if it would've been different if Hughes had chosen a plum instead of a raisin; that just came to me as we were talking about the poem together. And one of the students raised their hand and said, "Well, it would be entirely different because if a plum dries out, there's still a seed; there's still hope."
And it was that experience of reading, of everyone looking at the same thing, Kevin, and watching beautiful minds emerge in response to another beautiful mind, which is Langston Hughes and the poem he wrote, that is to me why reading is the most beautiful thing, if we're open to it. Meeting a great author and observing and watching what they do, not alone, but with other students, so that we can all see what we missed and see together. I think that the power and possibility of that is probably what's driven me through education, is the occasional revelation of seeing what another reader sees in something worth reading that changes you.
Kevin: This leads to, I guess, your work. I do think that when you are an avid reader that it helps with your critical and analytical thinking skills. This idea of standardized testing: I want to open with this. It's been around for over a century. Back in the years past when we tried to figure out the best way to measure students’ learning growth or their learning levels, we came up with things like the SAT, Advanced Placement and the like. How did you get involved with the College Board and this whole work?
David: Yeah, let me tell you a little bit about that. I think that the reason assessments came into place was this world — and by the way, it probably still is, Kevin — is much more about who [you know] than how much you can do. In other words, why did we ever come up with an assessment system? It was because, otherwise, colleges and other places would recruit from the places and people that they knew. Do you know even today, do you imagine roughly 50% of the students at our nation's top colleges come from what percentage of high schools would you guess, Kevin, today?
Kevin: Oh, my goodness, less than 1%.
David: It's 5%.
Kevin: Oh, my goodness.
David: So, 5% of high schools provide half of the kids in our nation. So, in other words, what happens is, there are high schools that colleges know. Does that make sense? And you get to one of those. And so, how else, without an assessment, are you going to raise your hand and be known? If your school is less known, if your location — if you're in a rural high school? So to me, the interest I had in assessment was democratizing the power for young people to apply themselves and raise their hands and to be seen. That's what fascinates me about it.
Kevin: But what's interesting: not only is that percentage low of high schools, but also the number of admittees who are legacy admittees.
Kevin: To a number of these major colleges, and that exacerbates the problem you just talked about.
David: Exactly. And if you don't understand the way this world tends to work, if you're looking for a first job in this life, have you yet, Kevin, had the incredible experience of, with all we talk about merit, when it comes time for a first job, you still get that call that says, "My niece, my nephew's looking for something. Can you help them out?"
Kevin: And that was the genesis. And I think over time it bore true that it opened up doors to families and children that otherwise wouldn't even have a chance to be enrolled in some of these major colleges. But then, over the years, other things happened where people will say that the tests were culturally biased or that they didn't necessarily measure a student's true aptitude. Or one of the big ones that we've heard over the past several years is that it's one moment in time, one test.
Kevin: And kids have a bad day, or they get nervous. I mean, what's your thinking around some of the things that have emerged since that original idea was created?
David: The first thing is we had to move totally from an aptitude style assessment, which was the old SAT, to an achievement. In other words, not what your inborn aptitude is or some weird thing called your IQ, but actually a simple thing, which is: do you have a set of core math, reading, and writing skills that you can show? In an AP classroom it's super clear, right? This is what we're measuring. Did you master the syllabus in chemistry? Or did you master it in economics or history? And so, that's all that a test should be about. A test does not tell you who you are or who you can be. It tells you whether you have certain skills and how securely you have them. Simply put. So, we had to be very careful of not overstating, Kevin, what any snapshot could show you.
And the bias issues, as you know, they're based on some old questions that were about regattas and things like that in the '50s. And what happened, though, in modern testing is that every question used on what we now call a high stake assessment is actually pretested — I know you would have reason to know this — with groups of students. And if any question, let's say young women particularly don't do well on that question while they do well on others, that question is dropped from the assessment before it's given to a larger group. So, there are routines in place, but I think, and this is what led us to develop the new digital SAT, that there are further breakthroughs to be had.
So, one thing you talked about was having a bad day, and why do you have a bad day on a test? We're trying to reshape the assessments we do. In AP, we're looking towards more project-based assessments, ways that a wider range of young people can show their talent, because I agree that what we have to do is make every change we can to assessment to make it comfortable and to make it interesting to students.
Kevin: I love the idea of the project-based learning experience because that to me is part of the future of education.
David: In every AP classroom we're working to make project-based work more a powerful part of the experience. And we have a course called AP Seminar in Capstone, Kevin, just to let you know, where students do research, but then they do it collaboratively. They do some of that research with other students. So they collaborate. They then present their findings and answer questions. So, it's getting into speaking and listening and all those skills that you're talking about that are so important. And we're finding when students learn and grow in this project-based way, they do better on all of our assessments, including the more formal ones. So, it's very powerful work.
But most kids in high school, Kevin, are not that top group of kids that is striving. Many of them are disconnected from high school. They're not interested in it. They don't see how high school connects to their future. So, when we assess them without interesting them, we're just seeing what they look like when they're bored. We're seeing them disengaged. I think we need a new standard for assessment, which is: it must not only be valid; it must not only predict; it must also be valid in its engagement of students.
So, the College Board is reconsidering the courses we offer to engage a much wider set of students. For example, there are only some students that are interested really today in formal economics, and we'd like more students to be, but a ton of them are interested in business and in building a business plan and being entrepreneurs. Why aren't we serving them and designing assessments that allow them to pursue that dream and show their best selves? Why aren't we serving young people the most popular thing students want to be after college or after high school? They want to be in the medical profession. They want to be a nurse; they want to be a physical therapist; they want to be a nutritionist. But we don't offer them courses. And that's why we're going to launch a course in anatomy and physiology with a focus on the health sciences. Because if you don't interest a young person and get to what they want and love to do, you're not going to see them at their best. You're not going to see them.
Kevin: And one thing that brings that to mind is, David, I've been fortunate to visit hundreds and hundreds of schools around the world. And I never forget this 12-year-old girl who was doing math, and I asked her; I said, "Is math your favorite subject?" She said, "Yeah, it is." And I said, "Oh, that's great." And I said, "Well, you don't look like you’re having much fun," because she was agitated.
Kevin: And she looked at her teacher who was on the other side of the room. She said, "My teacher knows I'm good in math, and we have our tests coming up, and she keeps telling me I have to do well because if our school doesn't do well, then we'll be rated lower. And she's counting on me to do well, me and a couple other classmates, or else we're going to get in trouble." And I just remember thinking, now that really has less to do with you and your work, but more to do with the result of schools and their challenges and putting pressures on kids who may have demonstrated some form of mastery in these subjects. So, how do we deal with that phenomenon, which I mean, I think is a reality even today?
David: Yeah, no, I totally agree with you. I think a very simple way of putting it is that an assessment to be worth kids' time must advance them. So, that state test doesn't really offer much to that student. They're just trying to rescue their school. But imagine that assessment, like the PSAT, advances you towards scholarships or advances you towards schools getting in touch with you. When kids take the SAT today, whether or not they submit their scores for admission, those schools reach out to them, and they invite them to apply. And in other words, I think assessment without an audience doesn't make sense.
Kevin: And recognizing that, there's such a wide range of quality in terms of our school systems around the country.
Kevin: And there are some demographic areas where virtually no kids are proficient, and then there are others where they're super proficient. How do you balance the realities of the outputs of kids based on the education they've been getting with the right kind of testing approach that still will ferret out those kids with potential but [who] may not be getting what they deserve?
David: Yeah, no, it's such a deep question, Kevin. Let me give you an example, though. Let's talk about it for a minute. We gave a course named AP Computer Science for 20 years, and these were the results of the exam. We gave it from, I'm talking about results from 1994 to 2014 in America.
David: And during that time, the kids who took AP Computer Science, kind of a Java coding course — 80% of them were young men, 20% young women. In 10 states in this union, 10 to 14 if I remember right, Kevin, in 2010, not a single African American or Latino took the exam. So, you might conclude from that, Kevin, that for reasons due to America's history or its structure, there just aren't a lot of young women who want to thrive and pursue computer science; there aren't that many Latinos, Blacks, doing advanced work. But then we decided that couldn't be true.
And so, we developed a new course called Computer Science Principles, because what we found was that when we offered the Java course, it was like saying to a young person, "Would you like to learn the advanced grammar of a foreign language you are not yet interested in?" That's what the Java course was. They didn't do it. And it only drew in the usual suspects. But in the new Computer Science Principles course, we had a project where you could apply computer science and data to anything that interested you, whether it was science or the arts, and solve a problem and build an app. We challenged them to build an app about something that fascinated them.
It's now five years later. Already it is not 80/20 young men and young women, but 65 to 35. There are tens upon thousands of African Americans and Latinos doing advanced work in computer science, in AP Computer Science. When an African American student goes on and takes AP Computer Science Principles, they are three times more likely to take the AP Computer Science course that I talked about earlier and three times more likely to major in Computer Science. So, one of the admissions officers wrote me, and they said they were initially skeptical until they saw in their admissions pool so many young women of color wanting to be computer scientists.
So, I think, Kevin, the question of this country is: are we really laying a platform of opportunity, where the widest range of kids can connect and show what they've got? And I don't think we have done that.
Kevin: No, I think you're right.
David: I think we have so much talent unseen. And I think that the College Board has to do so much more to change the invitation to appeal to a much broader set of teenagers to show what they've got, because if you spend time with adolescence, whatever their gaps in their learning, when you fascinate them and engage them, they will amaze you.
Kevin: And it also begs another question, David, and that is: isn't it part of your mission now that you see results like this, to not be static, and sometimes you have to drive what is not happening on the school level?
David: You've got it perfectly. Let me give you an interesting example. The number of Black students in economics is today flat or declining in AP Economics. And what I can promise you is: that is a very bad sign for economists. Does that make sense? Because I'm at the beginning of the pipeline.
David: So, how are we going to change that? Because if we don't change that, we're not going to create a society, because without economists, economics is where we divide the pie, right? That's when we decide which resources go where. We need a diverse set of economists if this country is to be free and if each community is to have its power. So, what if we instead offered a course, as I mentioned, in AP Business and Entrepreneurship? See, that will appeal to a much wider range of students, and we know from the data a much more diverse set of students. And then many of them will go on to economics, Kevin. And that's how we can change pipelines. But do you know how, because I've done the survey work, do you know how excited young people are about business and about being entrepreneurs and about building a business plan for their life, for their future? There are so many kids who are into that, but we're not offering it to them.
Kevin: What about career readiness? Because that's another area, and it speaks to the app concept that you described, where kids are getting the skills they need post high school, even if they decide not to go to college.
David: I think the single greatest challenge post the pandemic is not inviting kids to the same high school we've been sending them to that they weren't interested in anyway. There is in America a vast middle, Kevin. The College Board has done a pretty good job at serving that top 20% to 30% of the high school, who are strivers: they have a sense of where they're going. There is a vast middle, and like you said, it's vast in the white community; it's vast everywhere. Almost every family where you have more than one kid, there's a kid who fits in the middle. And they're not interested in what high school offers them. So, what we're looking at is we're talking to adolescents everywhere and finding out what they want to be. So, we found the biggest job they wanted was nursing and health sciences, but we weren't offering it.
Kevin: That's right.
David: We found that they were interested in business; they were interested in entrepreneurs. We weren't offering it. We were only offering economics. Whoops. We learned that they're in English classes but what they want to do is work in teams and research. So we're offering a seminar English class where they can do that. I'll give you a funny example. What does every kid in America basically do in tenth grade in math? Do you happen to remember? It hasn't changed since when you and I went to school. It's geometry, right?
David: They take a full year of geometry. How often have you returned to that work in your later life?
David: Why don't we give kids the chance to do statistics instead?
David: Why can't they do data? Kids know they need to use data everywhere, but we don't let them do it. And I think that we have to totally rethink what's in the high school so it's relevant to kids’ sense of themselves, but also who they want to be, their future. Whether that is their career, what they love to do, their future as a citizen. The College Board is trying to organize everything we do so that it connects to a kid's future more broadly. And that, of course, means their career, making everything we do much more career-relevant.
Kevin: So, David, I have one last question, and this is what I really want to know. And I hear you talk about these things: frankly, it's exciting. So, I applaud you and the Board for thinking more broadly about how to engage kids because too many kids suffer from dumbed-down, lowered expectations.
Kevin: But if we look out over the next five, 10 years, where do you see assessments landing in terms of addressing some of the things we've talked about?
David: I think in terms of exams like the SAT; they will be an option for students. That's one change, Kevin, that you're seeing. Students will choose whether or not to submit their scores. And that's going to create breathing room here. But I think the deeper work, to tell you the truth, Kevin, if assessments are going to be interesting, it must be a transformation. We must make assessments that are the work that kids want to do to advance themselves and to advance their future. We cannot offer the same old stuff. We can't throw them into the same old classrooms.
David: We have, I think, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-look at the relevance of the American high school and create courses that fascinate young people and get them to surprise us and surprise themselves. You said the most beautiful thing an assessment can do, which is: it can surprise you that you could do more than you thought you could, but only if it engages you. Only if you get excited. Only if you get possessed by that and begin to practice and engage yourself. Only if an assessment has that effect on you. A challenge that is productive doesn't change you. And we have to deliver that to so many more kids. And I think we've got to rethink the high school together and in that way invite kids to rise up during their high school years, get excited about things, and that'll put them on a better path towards college or career or whatever path they take.
Kevin: Well, my friend, I'm counting on you to make that happen.
David: Thank you, sir.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want To Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want To Know.
David Coleman is the chief executive officer of the College Board, the organization behind the SAT and the Advanced Placement Program. He is passionate about ensuring all students are prepared for college and career training.
David founded the Grow Network to help parents, teachers, and students utilize assessment results. He also cofounded Student Achievement Partners, which played a leading role in developing the Common Core State Standards.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.