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College Board President: Tear Down 'Wall' of Underachievement

The College Board's new president announced this week that his highest priority for the organization is helping disadvantaged students achieve their full potential.

In his first public address as president, David Coleman said he wanted to tear down the "wall" of lagging achievement that has flattened scores on NAEP and the SAT for four decades. Read the details in my story, which also links to a video version of the speech, which was delivered Wednesday night at the College Board's annual meeting, in Miami.

Coleman—best known until now as a chief architect of the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts—has zeroed in on three key areas in his bid to turn up the volume on the College Board's social-justice mission. He wants to:

• Use the group's clout and its trove of research data to keep promising students in the Advanced-Placement and college-going pipeline. College Board research shows that many students—in particular low-income students and those from ethnic and racial minority groups—show "AP potential" with good scores on the PSAT, but never enroll in AP classes. Likewise, its research shows that tens of thousands of students who score well on the SAT don't enroll in college.

• Figure out the student supports necessary to get more disadvantaged students into the top-scoring levels of the SAT. He cited troubling figures in his speech that show how few Latino and African-American students make it into the top 5 percent of scorers on that college-entrance exam.

• Help students build transcripts of rigorous study and obtain the necessary information about college to ensure that they choose institutions that are sufficiently challenging for them. College Board research on "undermatching" shows that accomplished low-income, black and Latino students often choose schools that are less selective than what they're qualified for. Since more-selective schools have better track records for degree completion, this dynamic puts these students at greater risk of not finishing college.

If there was any doubt about the College Board's top priorities under Coleman, he erased them on the opening day of the conference. A session about making sure English learners had access to challenging texts took top billing on that first day, with Coleman himself moderating. (See my blog post about it.)

How students learning English will be able to grapple with the new standards has been a big question on the minds of educators who work with them, so it's no small thing to turn a bright light on it under the gaze of 2,000 K-12 and higher-ed members of the College Board.

The fact that another area was totally overlooked—how students with disabilities will handle common-core demands—raised an interesting issue, especially as the New York City-based nonprofit makes such a high-profile statement about using its power to advance the needs of underserved students.

Much delicate and difficult work remains between the vision of bringing more rigor to disadvantaged students and the reality. In a private meeting with experts who study this, Coleman pressed for ways to make it happen. The questions stacked up quickly.

How does the College Board push for better college matching without somehow sending the message that students "should" attend the most selective school they can handle? After all, isn't a student's college choice a complicated matter, entwined with social, cultural, familial, and other considerations?

How does it identify "academically ready" students in its push to match them with the right supports and college information to see them safely into campus life? Should it use just its own "college readiness benchmarks"—SAT scores correlated with good entry-level college-course performance—something broader, that includes high school grades? How will it get data from various sources to best measure the problem?

And how will the College Board do all this without looking like its work is little more than a dressed-up push to expand and promote its own programs?

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