There’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of Coleman’s commitment to helping poor students. It’s important, however, to recognize that the one party that is certain to benefit quite handsomely by these efforts is the College Board.
The company wants schools to track students’ progress from eighth to 12th grade using the “SAT Suite of Assessments,” which will be largely paid for by schools and typically administered during the school day, thus ensuring high participation rates. All of the exams will be aligned with the redesigned SAT, which is slated to make its debut next spring. More school-day testing is bound to take time away from traditional instruction, as is Khan prep if schools make it part of the standard curriculum, which appears to be the College Board’s goal.
Since standardized tests are typically designed strictly to measure skills or knowledge, most poor, low-performing students probably won’t benefit from new exams—no matter how they are designed. That’s where test prep comes in. It’s no surprise that the College Board is, according to officials, piloting a program to train teachers to use Khan prep and conducting webinars for counselors on strategies for implementing SAT practice in schools.
If you ask Coleman, having students do Khan prep in school doesn’t detract from authentic learning. He believes that doing multiple-choice math and reading questions on screen and watching Khan’s YouTube videos constitute an “organic tool” that will work within the existing curriculum to develop academic skills. Meanwhile, Cynthia Schmeiser, who oversees assessment at the College Board, believes that “the sooner a student starts [using Khan prep], the more comfortable they’ll be on test day.”
These positions fly in the face of test-prep experts, who argue that the SAT is divorced from traditional school work because it is a high-stakes, time-pressured, multiple-choice exam. Tutors typically recommend intense, compact preparation that detracts as little as possible from other educational pursuits and takes months not years. As Brendan Mernin, a founding tutor at Noodle.com, put it, “The SAT is supposed to show what you got out of your schoolwork. It is not supposed to be the schoolwork.”
The group that will likely most benefit from the College Board’s plans includes high-performing, low-income students—defined by the researchers Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery as kids who score in the top 10 percent on their SAT scores and come from families with family-income levels in the bottom quartile. The researchers estimate that as many as 35,000 students fit this profile each year—and the vast majority of them don’t apply to any selective colleges. Harold Levy, the former chancellor of New York City schools, describes this discrepancy as a national embarrassment. Levy now oversees the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides long-term financial support and guidance for students in this demographic; the challenge Levy and others face is identifying these students before it’s too late, i.e., before they take the SAT. This fall, the foundation and a slew of other organizations will use data from the PSAT—the preliminary version of the exam—to find these kids. And unlike in the past, when the College Board charged a fee for each name search, that data will now be free.