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With New SAT Report, College Board Adopts Stronger Advocacy Tone

There was a noticeable change in tone at the College Board with the release of this year's SAT scores. Officials went beyond reporting scores to a passionate push to expand opportunity to all students, framing it as a social justice issue.

In the SAT score report out today, just 43 percent of students were deemed college-ready, the exact same percentage as last year, with the average test scores in each category flat.

The stagnant performance on the college-entrance exam and racial gaps (see the new Education Week story here) require a "call to action," said David Coleman, the president of the College Board, in a phone briefing this week with reporters.

What was missing from the explanation about the scores was the notion, emphasized in the past by the College Board, that a larger, more diverse testing pool was to blame. College Board officials said this week that the research does not support linking a change in demographics to the lack of improvement in scores.

"Let me say in a clear voice, there are those who tend to wave away these results because they say more diverse students are taking them," said Coleman, who took over leadership at the College Board in May of 2012. "Our conviction is clear: For this county to succeed, diversity and excellence must both expand. It is perhaps the most urgent work of this next century. We stand utterly committed to not wave away results in any way by saying different kids are taking the exam. We know through advanced coursework and hard work all kids can succeed at a very high level.  It's our commitment to expand that circle of opportunity."

Coleman added that using diveristy as an "excuse" can dull the clear call to the country to improve education for all students. The College Board is now focused on ways to encourage students to challenge themselves and get schools to offer more rigorous coursework, he said.

"We really feel at the College Board that we have to break through these frozen numbers that so limit opportunity for kids—and disproportionately for kids from diverse communities—to really respond to the kind of challenges that society faces. We think it's time to make a marked shift," said Coleman.

While there has been some improvement among African-American and Latino students, there is impatience with the lack of progress over the last five and more broadly over the last 40 years, he noted. "It's time to really consider how to get many, many more students into rigorous coursework that will enable them to break through a performance freeze that is limiting opportunity."

The new message in the new SAT report was picked up by those in the education community.

Anne Hyslop, a  policy analyst with the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, noted a shift in messaging around the report and suggested it may be linked to the change in leadership. "There is a focus on what the College Board can and should do to make sure the SAT is more of a gateway than a barrier," she said in a phone interview.

Jim Hull, the senior policy analyst at the National Association of School Boards, said the report was less academic and more about action. "There was definitely a change in tone from simply reporting the information to more on an advocacy tone on how to use the information," he said.

The idea that all kids can succeed if given the opportunity was embraced by the Education Trust, a research and advocacy organization that promotes equity in education.  

"I think it's great that College Board sees this as a call to action,"said Christina Theokas, the Education Trust's director of research. "It is situating itself more as an actor in remediation, highlighting action-taking, focusing on evidence-based programs, on what we can do better.

Coleman said "active steps" must be taken to increase opportunities for young people, and that the College Board is embarking on three initiatives:

Identifying potential. Using PSAT scores, the College Board plans to identify students who have the potential to succeed in Advanced Placement or honors courses and encourage them to enroll. Last year, there were 300,000 students with scores high enough to indicate they'd do well in a challenging course but who did not take such a course.

Sharing college materials. College Board is sending packets of customized college information to high-achieving, low-income students about the college application process. The aim is to motivate students to find the right fit, consider selective colleges, and understand financial aid is available.

Minimizing cost. About 23 percent of SAT takers used fee waiver in 2013, a 17 percent increase from five years ago.  A new push is underway to provide the test free to all high school juniors in a particular state or district.

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