All About Access: Reflections from The College Board Forum 2016
Every year in late October as fall tests wind down and students wrap up early applications, secondary school counselors and college admissions teams use this brief lull in advisement to convene at the annual College Board Forum. The 2016 forum was held in Chicago, IL, last week, and attendance was in full force. Many a panel turned standing room only as education professionals from across the country packed into the far corners of meeting rooms at the Sheraton Grand. Like me, they were eager to engage in The College Board’s first open discussion since the release of the new SAT in March and hear how it would respond to what has been a less than smooth debut.
President and CEO David Coleman commenced the forum with an apology. Not a brief apology that segued into his state of The College Board address, rather Coleman’s remarks were, in their entirety, an apology for a series of wrongs followed by The Board’s commitment to redress each by the end of this year. Coleman then stepped aside for the remainder of the hour and fifteen minutes allocated to him and gave the spotlight to Steve Bumbaugh, The College Board’s new Senior VP of College and Career Access, and Sabrina Sanchez, a Hispanic-American high school senior and first-generation college applicant. Their voices could undoubtedly have been part of another panel over the course of the three-day forum; Coleman’s move to shift focus to a minority student and college access initiatives was emblematic of The College Board’s new direction and self-proclaimed rebranding.
The College Board declares itself committed first and foremost to its updated tagline: Clearing a Path for All Students to Own Their Future. The Board was founded in 1900 to expand access across higher education. Since then, Coleman acknowledges, The College Board and the SAT specifically have garnered an elitist reputation. The redesigned SAT was in part an effort to dispel this image by better reflecting content that students encounter in school. Unfortunately, the potentially wide-reaching benefits of this new test were clouded by belated PSAT scores that reached counselors no sooner than students, opaque instructor manuals, inefficient customer service, and unnecessarily complicated fee waiver eligibility requirements, among other things. The Board has heard the outcry of frustration — voiced primarily by high school counselors — and is ready to both amend its failings and direct the bulk of its energies toward expanding college access.
The forum program reflected this aim accordingly. Meredith Walker, co-founder and executive director of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, set the tone at the Opening Plenary with her talk “Smart Girls Make Their College Dreams Become a Reality,” and subsequent panels followed suit: “Closing the Achievement Gap for Long-Term English Language Learners,” “Understanding and Breaking Through Barriers that Low-Income Students Face,” “College Prep and Increasing College Retention for Students of Color,” “Awareness, Advocacy, and Admission Practices for Supporting LGBTQ Students” were just a few.
College Board representatives who led some of these panels interspersed discussion with practical measures they are taking to enhance test, score, and college application accessibility. They are revising the fee waiver eligibility process so that low-income students no longer have to arduously prove the extent of their poverty each time they test. By the end of 2016, the design team will unveil a new score portal that will feel “more like an ATM,” an oft used descriptor that presumably promises simplification and intuitive steps. From now on every student who receives a test fee waiver will also receive four college application fee waivers.
College admissions personnel and educators spearheaded other panels, which both dealt candidly with standardized test frustrations and lauded progress spurred by this new suite of College Board assessments. Eric Bergholm, Director of Advanced Academics for Hillsborough Public Schools, shared that 8 -12th graders in his school district did better on state assessments across the board after taking the new PSAT tests. Hillsborough is the eighth-largest school district in the U.S. with 206,841 students. More than 50 percent are students of color, 12 percent are English Language Learners, and 57 percent qualify for free and reduced meals. Bergholm and his team used the newly extensive PSAT score reports to influence curriculum design, teacher placement, and even after-school help targeted at individual students. These efforts were made, and proved effective, because the new PSAT so closely reflects Florida standards.
While The College Board evidently has low-income, minority, and first-generation students in mind when it references clearing a pathway of accessibility, there were also gestures of inclusion aimed at high school counselors, student input, and even test prep professionals. When discussing Khan Academy, which The College Board extols as “an answer to prayer” for low-income students, Coleman and Bumbaugh emphasized their conviction that no student will soar through purely digital means — that practice must be paired with a human mentor in order to truly be effective. “I’ve been too tough on test prep in the past, perhaps for effect,” Coleman said. “There are many gifted people in the test prep world who have helped students realize their dreams through personal relationships.”
A demographic that seemed under-attended to, however, were students with disabilities. Although The Board was explicit about how it will respond to almost every major criticism leveled at it this year (There will be one customer service phone number, and reps will extend their hours until 8 p.m. Counselors will have access to PSAT scores a week before students and will once again receive two paper score reports for filing reasons, etc.), Coleman merely gestured towards ill-defined changes in the accommodations process when asked about it. Oversight on this front was surprising given The ACT’s newly efficient and rigorous accommodations process, unpacked by Jed Applerouth earlier this month. There were no panels devoted to the topic, and when an audience member asked, in “The College Admission Landscape” panel, how students with disabilities are factored into the admissions process and whether or not they should share their disability, she was met by a pause. Finally, a high school guidance counselor who had been included on the panel replied, “If a college isn’t gong to accept you because of your disability, you probably don’t want to go to that college.” Florida State Assistant VP for Enrollment Management John Barnhill went on to explain that FSU faced legal ramifications for asking about disability on its application and that now he would rather not know. The response felt unsatisfactory.
The College Board’s overall tenor was characterized by humility for shortcomings, optimism, and sincere commitment to direct its resources toward increasingly general good. To underscore its commitment to accessibility, The Board plans to start actively soliciting student feedback and featuring real high schoolers and their stories in its marketing campaign rather than stock photos. Secondary school counselors will be pleased with the credence their input has been given and would do well to take The College Board at its word when it professes a desire for more open channels of communication. If pathways are truly as accessible as they seem, we can expect not only increased support for disadvantaged students who have been ushered into the spotlight but also attention to those who remain overlooked.
Grace Franklin has been a member of the Applerouth team for two years during which she has worked with nearly 200 students and hired tutors throughout Applerouth’s markets. She has a background in journalism and has contributed to education content for The University of Georgia Alumni Magazine and Good Housekeeping Magazine, among other publications.