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The College Board; A Changing Mission

A historical analysis of the evolving direction of The College Board.

Higher education is a core ingredient in American culture. Colleges have evolved from small institutions in colonial society into “a system that served an incipient economic powerhouse by 1940” (Geiger IX). The roots of American Education originated with Harvard College when The Massachusetts Bay Colony agreed to fund such a school. Harvard, the first American University, was created to take after prestigious universities such as Oxford and Cambridge (Geiger 1). After the Civil War, colleges adapted into a new era of industry and urbanization (Geiger IX). As education progressed in the new era, a large gap arose between universities and secondary schools. To narrow this gap and create a clear pathway from high school to college, the College Board was formed in 1900, centered on services to help students with the transition (“College Entrance Examination Board, the”). The College Board’s mission was to create a uniform set of secondary school requirements (“The College Entrance Examination Board”). As time passed, the College Board’s actions evolved due to a changing external environment and its ambitions , with accelerated changes over the past twenty years. Some have pointed to Gaston Caperton, who became the College Board CEO in 1999, as increasing the organization’s focus on revenue and profit. Thomas Toch, founder of Education Sector, a nonpartisan education policy group, asserted that with Caperton, the College Board “was very much focused on the bottom line” and had “become quite an aggressive business” (“For SAT Maker, A Broader Push to the Classroom”). The College Board has transformed from an educational reform group to a revenue apparatus, influenced by strong ACT competition, changing policies of universities, and an obsession with rankings by colleges, parents, and students.

The College Board initially formed when institutions of higher learning were not collaborating on college admission requirements (“The College Entrance Examination Board”). High school headmasters were frustrated that they did not know the admission standards for colleges and therefore could not train students accordingly (Riccards and Teaneck 22). Wilson Ferrand, who was the headmaster of Newark Academy, explained the inconsistency of standards in an 1895 speech:

“Princeton and Columbia call for six books of the Aeneid; Yale requires, in addition, the Ecologues. These do not count for maximum standing at Princeton unless combined with the Georgics … Princeton requires Latin of candidates for one course, but not for the others. Yale demands it of all, Columbia of none” (“College Admissions”).

The College Board was mostly an East Coast organization during its first years and overtime gained influence across the nation (Johanek 45). It has about sixty committees, composed of college and school representatives that control specific College Board activities (“The College Entrance Examination Board”). These committees have college and school representatives (“The College Entrance Examination Board”). The College Board has added thousands of schools and organizations in the past sixty years. In the early 2000’s, the board consisted of more than 3,900 colleges and other organizations (“College Entrance Examination Board, the”). From its small beginnings, the College Board has grown to a very large organization, reporting “total revenue” of 840 million dollars in 2013 and “revenue minus expenses” of 98 million dollars (“Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax”).

The College Board’s core product since 1926 has been the SAT college entrance examination, where the College Board enjoyed monopolistic market share until ACT progress forced the organization to modify its course. The SAT was designed to be an indicator of a student’s intelligence regardless of a student’s prior high school learning (Johanek 387). When ACT was formed in 1965, a new competitor emerged to the College Board (Riccards and Teaneck 113). The ACT was originally created as a test to measure a student’s mastery based on curriculum rather than natural intellectual skills, and it has gained market share steadily (Riccards and Teaneck 113). From 2004 to 2009, the number of ACT takers in typical SAT states more than doubled (“The Widening Racial Gap in ACT College Admission Test Scores”). In fact, the ACT, long considered the “runner-up” in standardized testing, overtook the SAT as the top test administered in 2012, with 1.666 million ACT tests administered compared to 1.664 million tests administered of the SAT (“Testing, Testing”). In 2009, the ACT price was $31, which was less expensive than the SAT price of $45 (“The Widening Racial Gap in ACT College Admission Test Scores”). The ACT also had enjoyed other advantages like no essay requirement, no penalties for wrong answers, and no esoteric vocabulary section (though the SAT did address each of these elements in its 2016 release) (“The Widening Racial Gap in ACT College Admission Test Scores”). The ACT also has content of core subjects more familiar to students. Moreover, the ACT is the preferred test in the “interior” part of the nation, due in part to its being headquartered in Iowa. In fact, the ACT is a required test for high school juniors in the following states: Illinois, Michigan, and Colorado (“The Widening Racial Gap in ACT College Admission Test Scores”). In Illinois in 2013, as an example, the ACT had an astounding 96% market share (“ACT and SAT participation trends, 2006 to 2013”).

To combat ACT competition and a changing environment, the College Board has accelerated the development of other revenue sources such as AP exams. The College Board created the AP program, beginning with a pilot in 1952, which allows students to place out of college classes if they score high enough on the test (“College Entrance Examination Board, the”). The test aims to show academic achievement in certain subject areas. The number of AP tests administered increased in the 1980’s and 1990’s (“College Entrance Examination Board, the”). Thomas Toch describes his view of the rationale for creating the AP: “The organization has been heavily dependent for a long time on a single product, the SAT, a product that has lost favor, or lost market share, if you will … The AP program has saved the College Board” (“For SAT Maker, A Broader Push to the Classroom”). In the past decade, the College Board has used the AP test as an impetus for growth, with the number of students taking AP exams skyrocketing from 645,000 in 2006 to 1.1 million in 2016 (“As access to AP exams grows, more students are doing better”).

Beyond the AP exams, the College Board has extended its reach into new online business areas to combat the increasing threat of the ACT and adapt to a changing external environment. The College Board created an online website in 1999 that was designed to coordinate SAT logistics and offer convenient methods of applying to College (“College Entrance Examination Board, the”). In addition, the website offered practice tests and important financial aid information (“College Entrance Examination Board, the”). In a major change from their traditional non-profit ideals, the College Board’s twenty-four trustees voted to allow the organization to enter the profit world and create online offerings” (Aged Upstart, College Board, is Joining Gold Rush on Web). Since the online entity would be a subsidiary, it would not jeopardize the overall “nonprofit status” of the College Board, but the change was nonetheless significant. In the company’s one-hundred-year history, this would be the first time the College Board would contain a “for profit subsidiary” (Aged Upstart, College Board, is Joining Gold Rush on Web). The College Board leadership believed that it had the intellectual property and skillset and did not want to abdicate this business to others. CEO Caperton emphasized, ”We’re not willing to give up our not-for-profit expertise to somebody who’s just in it for the money” (Aged Upstart, College Board, is Joining Gold Rush on Web).

The College Board also sought new revenue opportunities by expanding its offerings to penetrate middle school and high school opportunities. For example in 2006, Gaston Caperton initiated a program called SpringBoard. This program would emphasize greater AP preparation, computer capability, and college advertisement (Riccards and Teaneck 106). The New York Times observed, “These days (the College Board) has broader ambitions and wants to reach deeply into high school and even middle school classrooms nationwide” (“For SAT Maker, A Broader Push to the Classroom”). More recently, the College Board has found opportunities to expand its K-12 programming by developing testing and aids to accommodate the Common Core. The Common Core is a federally mandated program by the federal government that began implementation in 2010 (“Rejected by Colleges, SAT and ACT Gain High School Acceptance”). Not everyone has been impressed. “The testing companies are making a land grab … It’s a little like the gold rush,” according to Scott Marion, who is executive director of the Center for Assessment, an organization that evaluates student testing (“Rejected by Colleges, SAT and ACT Gain High School Acceptance”). 

In addition to pursuing new revenue sources to respond to ACT competition, the College Board has modified the SAT itself. Most recently, in 2014, the College Board announced their plan for another set of changes to the SAT, most notably going back to a 1600 scale and removing the vocabulary section, which often contained rarely used words. While the changes were largely applauded, they also had their skeptics. Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, assessed, “The alleged improvements are motivated not by any serious soul searching about the SAT but by the competition the College Board has experienced from its arch rival, the ACT” (“College President: SAT Is Part Hoax, Part Fraud”). 

The Business Insider offered its own assessment, suggesting that “journalists should stop reporting the SAT’s reforms as if they were the result of a few good-hearted education advocates at an NGO, rather than a business desperately trying to keep a core revenue stream intact” (“The SAT May Have Been Changed To Help The College Board Maximize Revenue”).

Beyond ACT competition, other factors have also affected the mission of the College Board, including an intensified focus on rankings. Over the past fifteen years, rankings have played an increasingly influential role in shaping college decisions. In 2002, only 20% of students surveyed said they read college rankings (“Rankings Matter Relatively Little in College Choice”). In 2016, by contrast, 72% of students said rankings were a consideration in their decision (“College-Bound Students Use a Wide Variety of College Rankings Sources”). Newsmagazine college rankings, like US News and World Report, began to exert significant influence on a student’s college decision (“College Rankings: Democratized College Knowledge for Whom?”). Close to 7 million guidebooks/rankings are purchased each year (“Measuring Quality: A Comparison of ‘U.S. News’ Rankings and NSSE Benchmarks”). US News and World Report publishes the most frequently used college rankings, with 35% of students choosing this publication (Art and Science Group). According to U.S. News, “each factor is assigned a weight that reflects U.S. News’ judgment about how much that measure matters” (“How U.S. News Calculated the 2017 Best Colleges Rankings”). Benefiting the College Board, standardized test scores account for the highest weighting of the student selectivity section at sixty-five percent (“How U.S. News Calculated the 2017 Best Colleges Rankings”). U.S. News considers both SAT and ACT scores when they calculate a school’s ranking, however they only display the results from the test that was taken by the majority of students (“How U.S. News Calculated the 2017 Best Colleges Rankings), which increases the motivation for test taking organizations. Acceptance rates is also a statistic used by US News; lower acceptance rates translate into higher rankings, further intensifying the race for entrance into America’s most prized colleges (“How U.S. News Calculated the 2017 Best Colleges Rankings”). Therefore, if students want to attend these top ranked institutions, then it is important that they receive excellent standardized test scores (“College Rankings: Democratized College Knowledge for Whom?”).

Not all rankings, however, feed into standardized tests. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) ranking, as an example, was designed to assess the “learning opportunities to get students to participate in activities that decades of research studies show are linked to student learning” (“About NSSE”). In particular, this survey measures variables such as degree of academic challenge, collaborative learning, supportive campus and student interaction with faculty members (“Measuring Quality: A Comparison of ‘U.S. News’ Rankings and NSSE Benchmarks”). Another risk to the College Board’s revenue stream is “test optional and flexible” schools. More than 175 colleges have either become test optional (no standardized tests required) or test flexible (much greater flexibility in which tests a student can take) over the past 12 years (“No test scores? No problem: Applications surge after GW goes test-optional”). The list of colleges that have begun to move away from standardized testing includes highly reputable colleges, like Bowdoin for liberal arts colleges and Wake Forest for national universities (“No test scores? No problem: Applications surge after GW goes test-optional”). These trends toward new types of rankings and test optional schools could jeopardize the College Board revenue, which from standard tests alone is $332M (“Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax”). If past is prologue, this could motivate the College Board to expand even further into alternative revenue sources that may not be consistent with its stated mission of connecting students to colleges.

More than one-hundred years ago, the College Board was designed to be a link between students and colleges (“College Entrance Examination Board, the”). It had developed services including the SAT, which became the premier standardized admissions test. Much has changed. The ACT has surpassed the SAT as the top standardized test for college admissions (“The Widening Racial Gap in ACT College Admission Test Scores”). Other influential sources like rankings vie for the attention of students. With a changing and increasingly competitive landscape, the College Board has expanded programs and services aimed at greater influence and revenue (“College Entrance Examination Board, the”). While there has been support for the changes, the criticism leveled at College Board has been that they are chasing the revenue stream and not the students: “What they’re doing is drawing on their reputation and the institutional endorsement they’ve had over the years and using that to turn a dollar,” said Scott Rice, a professor of English at San Jose State University. He further admonished, “A testing agency should be purer than Caesar’s wife. That’s hardly the case if they’re going to enter the marketplace” (Aged Upstart, College Board, is Joining Gold Rush on Web). Going forward, the challenges for students will continue to be complex. Likewise, the competition will be no less fierce nor will the pace of the external environment slow down. The College Board will have an opportunity to reinvent back to its mission “to connect students to college success and opportunity” (“About Us”). This would be enthusiastically welcomed by students and society alike.

Works Cited

“About NSSE.” NSSE: National Survey of Student Engagement, Indiana University School of Education, 2017, nsse.indiana.edu/html/about.cfm. Accessed 10 Apr. 2017.

The Home Page of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) that describes the mission and priorities of the NSSE.

“About Us.” College Board, www.collegeboard.org/about. Accessed 28 Mar. 2017.

The homepage of the College Board that displays its logo and articulates its mission statement.

Anderson, Nick. “No test scores? No problem: Applications surge after GW goes test-optional.” The Washington Post, 4 Feb. 2016. The Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/02/04/no-test-scores-no-problem-applications-surge-after-gw-goes-test-optional/?utm_term=.82e3c7a587a2. Accessed 27 Mar. 2017.

An illuminating Washington Post article describing the surge of college admissions applications after George Washington University and other top tier schools went to a test optional approach

Anderson, Nick Anderson, and Dan Keating. “ACT and SAT participation trends, 2006 to 2013.” The Washington Post [Washington D.C.], 14 Mar. 2014. The Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com/apps/g/page/local/act-and-sat-participation-trends-2006-to-2013/862/. Accessed 10 Apr. 2017.

A revealing analysis comparing the market share of the ACT vs SAT by state for 2006 and 2013, illustrating the market share gains the ACT has made.

Arenson, Karen. “For SAT Maker, A Broader Push to the Classroom.” New York Times (1923-

Current file), Aug 16, 2006, pp. 2, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times, https://search.proquest.com/docview/93111969?accountid=4773.

A revealing New York Times column evaluating the College Board’s entry into 6th – 12th grades and opinions of supporters and detractors of this move.

Botstein, Leon. “College President: SAT Is Part Hoax, Part Fraud.” Time, 7 Mar. 2014, time.com/15199/college-president-sat-is-part-hoax-and-part-fraud/. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.

An compelling essay by the president of Bard College with a critical review of recent changes to the SAT and standardized tests in general.

“College Admissions.” CQ Researcher, Congressional Quarterly, 11 Apr. 1980, library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/document.php?id=cqresrre1980041100. Accessed 13 Apr. 2017.

An interesting periodical that depicts the history of conflicting college requirements for admissions.

“College-Bound Students Use a Wide Variety of College Rankings Sources.” studentPOLL, Art and Science Group LLC, Dec. 2016, static1.squarespace.com/static/5810fea5e58c62bd729121cc/t/58d43214414fb50a6b45d0aa/1490301462363/studentPOLL%2BDec+2016%2BCollege-Bound+Student+Use+a+Wide+Variety+of+College+Rankings+Sources.pdf. Accessed 10 Apr. 2017.

An analysis of the impact of rankings on college decisions based on a statistically significant survey of students in December 2016.

Geiger, Roger L. The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II. Princeton, Princeton UP, 2015.

A helpful guide to one’s understanding of the evolving purpose of a college education throughout American history, beginning with colonial school houses and transforming into modern universities that serve the needs of the economy.

Heim, Joe. “As access to AP exams grows, more students are doing better.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/as-access-to-ap-exams-grows-more-students-are-doing-better/2017/02/21/9f396440-f496-11e6-8d72-263470bf0401_story.html?utm_term=.b2017054f3a2. Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.

An interesting article that describes the College Board’s use of the AP test as a means to compete with the surging popularity of the ACT.

Hesel, Richard A., editor. “Rankings Matter Relatively Little in College Choice.” studentPOLL, Art & Science Group, LLC, 16 Oct. 2002, static1.squarespace.com/static/5810fea5e58c62bd729121cc/t/58dea25e17bffc723ce42192/1490985567185/StudentPOLL_V5-1.pdf. Accessed 10 Apr. 2017.

An analysis based on student survey results revealing that in 2002 college rankings had little impact on the college selection process.

Johanek, Michael C. A Faithful Mirror: Reflections on the College Board and Education in America. New York, College Board, 2001.

An insightful book focused on the College Board’s efforts in creating the SAT to provide equal opportunity for education and a mechanism to determine one’s intelligence regardless of previous high school education.

Lewis, Tamar. “Testing, Testing,” New York Times.” New York Times, Aug. 2, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/04/education/edlife/more-students-are-taking-both-the-act-and-sat.html

A revealing analysis of the expansion of standardized testing in the United States.

McDonough, Patricia M. et al. “College Rankings: Democratized College Knowledge for Whom?” Research in Higher Education, vol. 39, no. 5, 1998, pp. 513–537. www.jstor.org/stable/40196306.

An informative resource that points to the influence of college rankings and standardized tests despite their evident flaws.

Meserve, Jack. “The SAT May Have Been Changed To Help The College Board Maximize Revenue.” Business Insider [New York], 7 Mar. 2014. Business Insider, www.businessinsider.com/the-sat-may-have-been-changed-to-help-college-board-maximize-revenue-2014-3. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.

A probing analysis of the College Board’s most recent changes to the SAT and its potential motivation to generate more revenue.

Morse, Robert, et al. “How U.S. News Calculated the 2017 Best Colleges Rankings.” U.S. News and World Report, 12 Sept. 2016, www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/how-us-news-calculated-the-rankings. Accessed 15 Dec. 2016.

A primary source that details the various components, such as standardized test scores and college acceptance rates, that U.S. News and World Report uses to determine its college rankings.

Pike, Gary R. “Measuring Quality: A Comparison of ‘U.S. News’ Rankings and NSSE Benchmarks.” Research in Higher Education, vol. 45, no. 2, 2004, pp. 193–208. www.jstor.org/stable/40197344.

A fascinating review of the NSSE rankings and their stark contrast to U.S. News, with NSSE emphasizing student engagement and not placing weight on standardized testing.

“Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax.” CitizenAudit.org, CitizenAudit.org LLC, 30 Apr. 2016, deutsch29.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/college-board-2013-990.pdf. Accessed 10 Apr. 2017.

The IRS 900 filing from College Board in 2013 that details its revenue and expenses and other federally mandated items including executive compensation.

Riccards, Michael P., and Madison Teaneck. The College Board and American Higher Education. Madison, Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2009.

An educational book that provides insight into the College Board’s reaction to increasing ACT competition by highlighting initiatives such as SpringBoard.

Valentine, John A. “The College Entrance Examination Board.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 12, no. 2, 1961, pp. 88–92., www.jstor.org/stable/355443.

A useful article that focuses on the College Board’s mission to create greater collaboration among secondary schools and institutes of higher education.

“The Widening Racial Gap in ACT College Admission Test Scores.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 65, 2009, pp. 16–17., www.jstor.org/stable/40407522.

A helpful resource in illustrating the increased popularity of the ACT in the past several years for reasons including price differential and an optional essay.

Wilgoren, Jodi. “Aged Upstart, College Board, is Joining Gold Rush on Web.” New York Times (1923-Current file), Sep 25, 1999, pp. 2, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times, https://search.proquest.com/docview/110140401?accountid=4773.

An illuminating New York Times article on how the College Board entered the “for profit” world for the time in its history, with the creation of an online business subsidiary.

Wilson, Maureen E. “College Entrance Examination Board, the.” Encyclopedia of Education, edited by James W. Guthrie, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Macmillan Reference USA, 2003, pp. 372-373. World History in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3403200126/UHIC?u=meri75411&xid=54d00cd9. Accessed 15 Dec. 2016.

An interesting article that explains the mission of the College Board in helping students prepare for the transition to college by offering AP tests and creating a website for easier accessibility.

Zernike, Kate. “Rejected by Colleges, SAT and ACT Gain High School Acceptance.” The New York Times [New York], 5 Apr. 2016. The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2016/04/06/us/act-and-sat-find-a-profitable-market-as-common-core-tests.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FCollege%20Board&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=6&pgtype=collection. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.

A critical review on how the College Board is
using the federally mandated Common Core program to expand its testing business
in public schools.

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