I’m not a big fan of sports talk radio, but I listen when I’m in the car during times when NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered aren’t on.  Recently I have noticed a common advertiser on several different sports talk radio shows, the Dollar Shave Club.  I use an electric razor, so am unlikely to become a member, but apparently the deal is that the club does home delivery of razors and blades for less cost than found in stores.


I have become intrigued, though, by another product offered by Dollar Shave Club, Dr. Carver’s Easy Shave Butter.  I’m curious about the difference between Shave Butter and shaving cream, shaving foam, or shaving gel.  Is there such a thing as Difficult Shave Butter, or would that be considered shave margarine?  Is Dr. Carver the famous George Washington Carver, and if so, is Easy Shave Butter another of the hundreds of products he invented from peanuts?


In the last few days I have also been thinking about a different kind of razor.  In philosophy Occam’s Razor, named for the medieval philosopher William of Occam, is the hypothesis that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon or problem is usually the correct explanation.  Obviously William of Occam never watched TV detective shows, and obviously he never dealt with the College Board.


So is the College Board rollout of PSAT scores more accurately described as a fiasco or as a snafu?  Who would have guessed that the Board could make the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success’s introduction of its new application platform appear to be a public relations stroke of genius by comparison?  If the goal was to increase traffic on the NACAC Exchange, it worked. There were more than 50 posts regarding accessing scores.


It will probably not come as a surprise that most of them contained a hint of frustration and anger.  It wasn’t just the fact that the test scores were a month late or the difficulty in accessing scores whether you are a student or a counselor. For students it was a five-step process, and at the end of step five some students were told that they hadn’t taken any College Board assessments. 


For counselors the only thing more difficult than accessing the score reports was figuring out what the scores meant.  Over the weekend I went on the College Board website looking for explanatory information.  After getting my User Name and Password straight (not the College Board’s fault), I found a download that looked promising, but when I clicked on it I got not the PDF but the previous page.


The response from the College Board has been underwhelming (but hardly surprising).  Several e-mails expressed sympathy for our difficulties, but there was nothing that resembled an apology or acceptance of responsibility.


The discussion so far has been about accessing scores, but the more interesting issue is the scores themselves.  I had all my students in grades 9-11 take the PSAT (not the PSAT 8/9), and my preliminary look at the scores tells me that the ERW scores (Evidence-based Reading and Writing) for each grade are 30-35 points higher than the Critical Reading scores were last year for the same grade.  The math scores are also higher, but not to the same degree.  I also see that the increase in verbal (CR/ERW) + Math scores from 9 to 10 and 10 to 11 is about 120 points, close to twice the increase I saw a year ago in each case.  I’m apparently not the only one seeing increased scores.  Several independent school counselors have reported that the numbers of students with National Merit index scores exceeding the cutoffs for Semifinalist and Commended Student status are much higher than previous years.


So what does that mean?  I’m not sure, and the preliminary concordance released by the College Board isn’t much help.  Are my students much brighter than a year ago? Maybe.  Does the new test advantage students from schools with rigorous academic programs?  That was a hypothesis when I saw the design of the new test, but it is hard to imagine that an organization devoted to access and equity is going to produce a test that advantages those who are already privileged.  Or is this a new form of “recentering,” where all the scores are higher? If so, will we hear a year from now that the nation’s record-high SAT scores are evidence of the success of the Common Core, which just happened to be developed under the direction of one David Coleman, who leveraged that accomplishment for a new job as President of the College Board?


Occam’s Razor doesn’t help us answer any of those questions even when enhanced with an existential version of Dr. Carver’s Easy Shave Butter. It also doesn’t answer the broader question, which is why college admission continues to have rollouts of “new and improved” technology-driven innovations that are new but not improved.


First, there was the Common Application, then the Coalition, and now the College Board.  What do they have in common?  All involve the introduction of an enhanced technology platform that doesn’t work as promised.  Why is that?


(Please note:  What follows is intended to be tongue-in-cheek, which doesn’t mean it’s not also right.)


The only thing stronger than my belief in rationality as represented by Occam’s Razor is my belief in conspiracy theory.  What do Common Application, the Coalition, and the College Board have in common?  They all begin with the letters “CO.”  If that’s not evidence of a conspiracy (another word that starts with “CO”), I don’t know what is.


Is it coincidence (another CO word) that when the Common Application was taking heat for its lack of competence (CO word), the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success reared its head to deflect attention and make the Common Application’s problems seem minor?  Just when the counseling community (both CO words) begins getting exercised about the Coalition’s efforts, along comes the College Board with problems that take the Coalition away from the spotlight.  Are the snafus nothing more than a comedy (CO word) of errors, lack of competence (CO word), competition (CO word) to see who can screw up more creatively, or communism (CO word) rearing its ugly head?


And what is the significance of the letters CO?  It just happens to be the chemical formula for Carbon Monoxide.  Carbon Monoxide is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and toxic, killing its victims without awareness that they’re endangered.  At some level, aren’t all these innovations a kind of Carbon Monoxide, having a toxic effect on all of us and on the college admissions process we love?


So—Common Application, Coalition Application, College Board.  Coincidence or conspiracy?  Which seems like the more reasonable explanation?