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College Board Takes New Direction With Combined Report on SAT, PSAT and AP

As SAT scores remain stubbornly flat, the College Board is trying a new approach in releasing its annual data on student performance.

This year, the College Board combined the release of scores for its college-entrance exam and the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test with more promising participation and achievement results from its Advanced Placement programs(Look for my complete story on the results on Education Week's home page.)

Under the new leadership of David Coleman, the New York-based organization highlighted how students can leverage experience taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test and enrolling in AP to better their chances to be prepared for college.

Using the scores that students earn on the PSAT, the College Board has been identifying students with potential to excel in AP and providing schools with those rosters to encourage enrollment. This year's report also noted how close so many students were on the SAT to meeting its college and career benchmarks, if only they had taken a more rigorous course or two.

"If we are going to together move the numbers we are describing in this report and make a difference for students, it will take these programs interacting at their most powerful level to propel students forward," said Coleman in a press briefing last Wednesday.

There were 1.67 million students who took the SAT in the class of 2014. This compares with the 1.85 million students who took the ACT. Scores on both tests were virtually flat this year, compared to the previous year. The ACT has plans to administer statewide testing for all juniors in 19 states, while the SAT is given free to students in three states plus the District of Columbia.

The good news for the College Board was with the AP program.  Participation expanded by 3.8 percent overall and nearly double that for traditionally underrepresented minority students and low-income students compared to 2013.

Lindsey Tepe, a program associate with education policy programs for the New America Foundation in Washington, said expanding access to AP is encouraging, but maintaining consistency in the program and improving success rates is a challenge.

If students score poorly on an AP exam, they might be better off to take a basic course and really excel, she suggests. "It might be best for a high school student to get the foundational knowledge needed going into college, rather than to try and fail," said Tepe.

The College Board report notes new research showing students who took at least one AP exam, including those scoring a 1 or 2, are more likely to graduate on time than academically matched peers who didn't take AP.

At a time when there is some pushback on the nationalization of standards, the College Board has the buy-in from higher education with the SAT and AP, adds Tepe. "Colleges accept these assessments," using the SAT for admissions and offering credit for AP to varying degrees, she said. "The fact that colleges are on board and put value on [SAT and AP] is something really important that families shouldn't overlook."

With the College Board redesigning the SAT and PSAT to align more closely with what is being taught in high schools, Tepe notes that future results will be closely watched in the next five years.

Joseph DiMartino, the president of the Center for Secondary School Redesign in Providence, R.I., said the College Board's change in tone with an emphasis on opportunity is real and welcome. Yet he believes there is too much emphasis on AP and it could squeeze out other options for increasing college readiness.

"I am partial to early college where kids are actually taking college courses, not a national AP curriculum," said DiMartino.  He is concerned that AP classes segregate high-achieving students, taking away role models for others who may be struggling. Another approach could be to offer an honors challenge within a class, suggested DiMartino, who is a proponent of competency-based learning.

Robert Rothman, a senior fellow with the Alliance for Excellent Education, said the expansion of AP to more disadvantaged students is "very significant." More attention is being paid to AP as a measure of high school quality, prompting an increased push for enrollment, he said.  A concerted effort to provide supports is often needed to help students who may not have typically taken an advanced course to succeed, he added.

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