What do the Test Prep industry and the Democratic and Republican Presidential campaigns have in common? Several weeks ago I would have said “nothing.” Now I’m not so sure.
I recently attended the Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admission Counseling conference in Ocean City, Maryland. That conference is always something to which I look forward, a chance to relax, refresh, and reflect with friends and colleagues.
I organized and participated on a panel with the title, “Suburban Legends.” I prefer the term “Suburban Legends” to “myths” because “myths” seem clearly false while Suburban Legends, like Urban Legends, sound plausible, are commonly believed by people who are smart and sophisticated, and can always be traced to a FOAF (friend of a friend), or in the case of Suburban Legends about college admission, to a co-worker’s brother-in-law’s daughter’s boyfriend’s best friend’s sister.
My fellow panelists were all friends as well as colleagues I respect greatly, and each of us presented a Suburban Legend for consideration. This is not the full list, but they included the assumption that college counselors in independent schools are like Hollywood agents, negotiating/lobbying/cutting deals for students, the belief that selectivity=prestige=quality, and the bromide that the college years are the best years of one’s life.
In introducing the session and explaining the concept of “Suburban Legends,” one of the examples I used was test prep. I have always considered the test prep industry one of the marketing success stories of our time for convincing a generation of parents and students that test prep is necessary for SAT and ACT success. I see test prep as worthwhile in familiarizing a student with test format and helping manage time effectively, but I am skeptical of claims that test prep produces huge increases in scores.
The evidence is at best circumstantial and inconclusive. I remember Bill Fitzsimmons observe during his service as chair of NACAC’s Testing Commission that claims about the benefits of test prep became more modest the minute the Federal Trade Commission began looking into the test prep industry. And yet, over the course of my career I have seen the College Board move from denying that test prep works to advertising itself as the ultimate source for test preparation, suggesting either a change of heart or recognition that there is money to be made from test prep.
On the very same day as the panel, there was news in the world of test prep. ACT announced a partnership with Kaplan to provide live online preparation for its test beginning next fall. On one level, that news wasn’t all that surprising, serving as a response to the College Board’s partnership with Khan Academy for free SAT “practice” introduced as part of the switch to the new SAT introduced this spring. But on a different level, a partnership between one of the two major test providers and the leading test prep provider seems as unlikely as Nixon going to China or Hillary Clinton picking Rush Limbaugh as her Vice Presidential candidate.
What followed was even more surprising. The next day a blog on the Education Week website featured an attack from a College Board spokesman on the new alliance, drawing the distinction between the free nature of the College Board/Khan Academy program and the cost (less than $200) of the ACT/Kaplan plan for all but low-income students. The spokesman also questioned ACT’s decision to affiliate with a company whose businesses include for-profit colleges. (Kaplan is a subsidiary of Graham Holdings Company, formerly The Washington Post Companies, and Kaplan is responsible for the majority of Graham’s revenue.)
To my knowledge the College Board criticism of ACT is unprecedented. For years the College Board has treated its competitor with benign neglect, even refusing to take part in panels that included someone from ACT.
The change may reflect how competitive—and lucrative—the college-admissions testing and test prep businesses have become. In 2011 more students took the ACT than the SAT for the first time ever, and there have been suggestions that the new SAT, which is closer in format to the ACT than the old version of the test, was an attempt to win back market share.
The real battleground, though, may not be college admission but rather state assessment testing. States such as Illinois and Colorado have been using the ACT as their state assessment for high-school juniors. College Board President David Coleman’s previous job was designing the Common Core; what better assessment of the standards than the SAT, make that “SAT Suite of Assessments”? States such as Delaware, Connecticut, and Hew Hampshire have signed on to use the SAT as a statewide assessment, and the College Board got a coup this spring when Michigan decided to switch from ACT to SAT.
There is, of course, another less likely explanation for the public drama involving testing and test prep. The College Board criticism of the ACT/Kaplan partnership came on the day of the New York Republican and Democratic primaries, at a time when the absurdity and declining civility that has characterized American politics in 2016 reached a new level. Not only did we have the spectacle of watching job applicants for President of the United States try to figure out how to ride the subway and eat a variety of New York delicacies, but we also had the two Democratic candidates for the first time questioning each other’s qualifications. So is the College Board/ACT spat a form of collateral damage from the current state of political discourse?
If so, who is who and what is what? Does ACT/Kaplan represent Hillary Clinton, challenging Bernie Sanders/SAT/Khan’s promise of free test prep as unrealistic and unsustainable? Or is ACT/Kaplan really Donald Trump, in favor of a test with American in the name and opposed to a test prep provider that sounds foreign? Or is Ted Cruz standing in for ACT and Carly Fiorina his Kaplan, engaged in a desperate attempt to keep SAT/Trump from winning? And while we’re on the subject, am I remembering correctly that Ted Cruz got his start playing the Count on Sesame Street? Which test/test prep partnership represents Common App and which the Coalition?
The presidential politics as reality show train has already left the station. Let’s hope that neither test prep nor college admissions heads down the same track.