The Testing Predators beat ACT and the College Board

On the morning of ACT June, Janet Godwin, CEO of ACT, was out of her office overseeing one of the biggest administrations of the year. She was in a three-star hotel in Atlanta hanging out with members of the test prep industry. Godwin and a College Board executive were at the 2nd Annual Test Prep Industry Association Conference. While it’s not uncommon for test prep tutors to attend test publisher conferences, it’s highly unusual for senior test maker executives to accept an invitation from a group that David Coleman, CEO of the College Board, called them “predators that prey on the anxieties of parents and children and provide no real educational benefit.

What does it mean that the CEO of ACT gives a keynote, attends training sessions and chats at happy hour with high-priced tutors and the College Board executive gives coaches test an early preview of the next cyber SAT? This means that the “predators” of test preparation have brought test publishers to heel.

Admissions test prep originated in the 1930s, just a few years after the first SAT in 1926. From those early days until the 1980s, most prep businesses were local stores that lived off the tests like remoras live off sharks.

The College Board and the Educational Testing Service, which actually authored the SAT until 2016, went to great lengths to refute any reports that suggested test prep could lead to significant score gains, because by its own admission , “If the counseling test can be consistently beaten through coaching, then counseling itself is discredited.” Despite the arguments of test publishers, test preparation continues to attract clients eager to improve their scores.

The relationship between publishers and preparers became more heated when John Katzman, founder of The Princeton Review, entered the fray in 1981. Katzman’s public attacks on the SAT, ETS, and College Board not only helped to accelerate the growth of his test prep company, but also directly challenged the quality and value of testing. Unlike previous test prep providers, Katzman focused on convincing parents of the “beatability” of the test and the need for specialized preparation, shifting the conversation about the value of the test from college lectures to PTA meetings. .

Before Katzman, the main opponents of the tests were academics and admissions officers at small liberal arts colleges in the North East like Bowdoin and Hampshire.

Colleges, which adopted voluntary testing practices before 1980. The emergence of the Princeton Review began to erode popular belief in testing and forced publishers to defend their products not only to academics, but also to suburban mothers. A president of the ETS said, in 1980, “The existence of coaching schools is nothing more than the triumph of hope over reality.” Test registration booklets began to include the message that “expensive coaching courses” required time, money and effort and therefore could not be recommended.

The enmity between the two camps could have been good for education as a whole, with each segment acting as a check against the other. Test publishers sued test prep organizations and helped catch cheaters. Test prep companies have been watchdogs of test makers and each other, exposing leaked tests, bad test questions, problematic policies and practices, and false accusations of cheating.

But the potential for both sides of the testing industry to act in concert to improve student outcomes has never been realized. Test publishers have responded to criticism and tested optional policies by making the test valuable as a lead generation tool for colleges. Test prep, for its part, will always be a driver of inequality and injustice, reselling information and support to anyone who can afford the fees. Let’s not forget that at the heart of almost every test cheating scandal is a test prep company or tutor.

Rows between coaches and editors quieted down for a while, but were reinvigorated in 2014 when College Board CEO David Coleman announced the 15th version of the SAT and a partnership with Khan Academy to provide this which he called a technology “that broke down”. the racial divisions that so haunt this nation.

“It’s time for the College Board to say with a clear voice that the culture and practice of expensive test prep… fuels the perception of inequality and injustice in our country,” Coleman said. “It may not be our fault, but it is our problem.” Coleman promised he would end the costly prep industry, which he blamed for the “perception” that the SAT contributes to inequality.

Perhaps to address the “perception of inequality,” ACT and the College Board have increasingly offered test preparation products, and in recent years have focused on trying to present these products as pathways to fair test preparation.

The College Board developed a free curriculum with Khan Academy, originally marketed as “world-class test prep”, but soon became “convenient” to move it away from prep to testing. Shortly after the launch of the official College Board SAT prep, ACT began offering a free ACT Academy, but within three years it quietly discontinued its free test prep product in favor of its own paid instructor certification program and a reseller relationship with Kaplan Test Prep.

These inconsistencies highlight the struggle of test publishers to find an effective response to the continued growth of the test preparation industry and declining confidence in their core products. Nowhere are these inconsistencies clearer than in posts about test publishers’ own online video prep offerings, which ACT and SAT find highly effective, versus test publishers’ commentary on commercial test prep courses. and tutoring, which test editors consistently find ineffective. .

The presence of publishers at the test readiness conference sends a very clear signal that where they might once have been driven by a mission to provide evidence-based, research-driven assessments, they were now primarily salespeople, doing everything they can to sell a product and generate leads for college recruiters.

The merging of test editors and test prep appears to be not only an admission that test prep works, but also a disparagement from some of the test’s most knowledgeable critics. In the absence of the test prep industry, the only organization that regularly monitors the practice and process of large-scale testing would be the small nonprofit advocacy organization The National Center for Fair and Open Testing. (full disclosure: I work at FairTest and have been a preceptor tester for 30 years).

When asked to comment, Godwin replied, “ACT is committed to a fair testing process that helps all students succeed. . . . ACT will continue to engage and collaborate with education actors who have the opportunity to improve the learning experience for all, especially if they help facilitate more equitable access.

Although it is entirely possible that a relationship between test preparation and test manufacturers could produce positive results for students. In fact, I attended two such conferences at ACT headquarters where the discussion centered around processes and procedures that could improve student outcomes, fee waiver processes, and more. The test prep conference, on the other hand, is a business and marketing event that will allow the test prep industry to brag about its comfort with test makers, get insider information about the digital SAT, and sell better. his products. The scariest outcome might be that some prep companies get information that allows them to overturn all security and give access to test materials to their customers.

In 1999, Don Powers, a research scientist at ETS, said, “If we were to find that tests were highly coachable in a relatively short period of time, that would undermine validity claims about what these tests measure. “Since then, the number of colleges that don’t require the SAT or ACT has grown from a handful to over 80% of four-year colleges. Test publishers no longer seem concerned that test prep support will compromise the validity of their exams, instead they have decided to partner with the only other group that benefits from the expansion of admissions testing.

June 2022 marks the date when test publishers, having failed to undermine the credibility of test prep coaches or create the promised “bad day” for the test prep industry, decided to save their tests by legitimizing the “predators”.

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