Regardless of whether you are a Catholic educator, a classical educator or both, standardized testing has an influence on what you do. Even if your school never mentions the SATs or ACTs in any classes, your students have to concern themselves with these tests for their collegiate aspirations. While some colleges have adopted test optional policies for admissions, most colleges still require one of the two major entrance exams for scholarship competition. And if you’re a college counselor these days, you know that college counseling has less to do with admissions and more to do with scholarships and financial aid packages. With the high cost of higher education, it’s not a matter of getting into a college, it’s a matter of how to afford it.
So if you are not familiar with the connections between the SATs, College Board and Common Core, it’s worth connecting some of the dots to better understand what kind of influence is being exerted on our schools and students. Here are a few facts to help you consider the world of testing further.
A good place to start is David Coleman, the current president of College Board, the company behind the SATs and many other tests like the PSATs and AP tests. (College Board is technically a non-profit that reports over $1 billion in annual gross receipts and over $1 billion in assets. Testing is big business!) Before College Board, Coleman co-founded Student Achievement Partners, which played a lead role in developing the Common Core State Standards. More specifically, Coleman, who is widely acknowledged as the architect of Common Core, is largely responsible for writing the English Language Arts portion of the Common Core Standards. Criticism of the Common Core Standards, both from a Catholic perspective and a classical perspective are well founded and easy to find.
Shortly after Coleman became president of College Board in 2012, it was announced that the SAT would undergo a major revamp. It was obvious that one of the major reasons was to have the SAT test more closely aligned with Common Core. In a Pioneer Institute report, mathematician James Milgram and testing expert Richard Phelps explained that aligning the SAT with Common Core essentially converts it from a test predicting college success to one that simply measures high-school achievement.
It is well-known that Common Core places much more emphasis on informational text at the expense of literature. So predictably the SAT test follows this shift in the required reading analysis in its verbal testing section. Another result is that the vocabulary tested follows the emphasis on informational texts over literary vocabulary. Coleman explained it this way, “When we redesigned the SAT last year, we said goodbye to SAT words. We will instead measure students’ understanding of words they will use over and over again—words that open doors in college coursework and career training—words like ‘synthesis’ and ‘analysis.’”
Average scores from the new SATs were significantly higher. College Board even produced a comparison guide that says a 730 on the new Math section is like a 700 on the old Math section. “In 2012, the ACT became the most popular college-admissions test in the country. Many of the changes the College Board had made to the test appear to be designed to make the SAT more attractive to students, states, and school districts, which are increasingly paying for students to take the exam during the school day.”
By now you should be sensing that profit is a major driving factor in the testing industry. In fact, the LA Times reports that every major revision in educational standards offer testing companies and textbook publishers a bonanza in new captive revenue. The testing companies also leverage their market share to capitalize on another area of big business—the sale of student information. College Board and ACT say that they only share information when students opt in, but it is usually couched as receiving information from colleges and universities that are a good fit for the student. What student doesn’t want to be courted by college and universities?
It should also be noted that College Board entered into a partnership with Khan Academy (a $100 million non-profit) to offer official free SAT test prep. In fact, a Khan Academy test prep question actually appeared on an actual SAT test.
In case you are wondering, there is a similar story to the ACTs, the other major college entrance exam. ACT Inc. (a $770 million non-profit) was also involved in the development of the Common Core State Standards and had most of it’s testing (primary and secondary level) aligned with Common Core from the beginning.
There is an alternative of which educators should be aware. The Classic Learning Test was created in 2015 and “invites students to wrestle with works of the greatest minds in the history of Western thought across literary and mathematical content.” This description alone is a welcomed addition among the two heavy-weight testing companies. You can also tell a lot from the company CLT keeps. Among the colleges that accept CLT scores for admissions are several Newman Guide schools like Christendom, Franciscan, Thomas Aquinas College and University of Dallas. There are also several Catholic Honor Roll high schools that serve as testing sites for the CLT like Holy Spirit Prep (Atlanta), St. Augustine Academy (Ventura, CA) and St. Francis Xavier HS (Appleton, WI).
In full disclosure, I should state that I am a member of CLT’s Academic Board of Advisors. As a teacher and administrator for over 12 years, I have seen the kind of influence SAT and ACT exert onto our students. As a result, these secular giants have an undue influence on secondary schools and colleges alike. Now with the complete alignment to Common Core, it is just more obvious that SAT and ACT are big businesses out to rake in profit under the non-profit mantle and reinforce information training instead of true education in the process. So I was eager to be involved with any classical alternative.
Since being involved in CLT and serving as a testing site, I have been greatly impressed with the product and I am proud to be a part of the initiative. The CLT exam is a test classical educators can truly support. A casual cruise through one of its practice tests will take you through readings from C.S. Lewis and Dostoyevsky. In terms of something more concrete, I think one of my students captured it best when he, in teen parlance, said, “It was more stuff like we study here.” Even if the articulation was non-classical, I’ll take it as a confirmation that there now is a national standardized test that better coincides with the educational mission of our school. When considering the facts surrounding SAT and ACT, the CLT Exam is worth a further look.