Bruce Maiman: The problem with standardized tests? It’s the money

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 11, 2014 - 12:00 am

You can debate endlessly the value of the SAT, but I wonder whether last week’s announced revisions to high school’s ponderous ritual is really about nothing more than money.

California is uniquely tied to the financial bounty of the SAT. In 2001, then-UC San Diego President Richard Atkinson suggested the UC system drop SAT requirements in favor of tests that assess what students actually learn rather than what he called “ill-defined notions of aptitude.”

The College Board, the century-old nonprofit that manages and administers the test – for a fee – panicked and, within months, announced revisions.

Well, of course, given that the UC system is the SAT’s biggest customer. Bob Schaeffer, director of FairTest, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the misuse of standardized test scores, told me “the SAT brings in about $345 million a year, according to the board’s tax returns.” Total revenue annually tops $700 million.

A Columbia University report found that the board cleared $65.6 million in 2010, up from $53 million the year before, and paid at least two dozen employees more than $230,000. Then-President Gaston Caperton earned more than $1 million annually – almost double his 2005 salary – plus a $125,000 expense account.

That’s some nonprofit.

Atkinson, now 84, was unavailable to share his take on the latest SAT revision, which largely undoes the changes adopted in 2005. No more mandatory essay or vocabulary words nobody uses, and, after changing to the “New Coke” 2,400-point scale, they’re returning to the classic 1,600 points.

Why the latest changes? Competition. In 2011, the ACT, the nation’s other testing pressure cooker, overtook the SAT’s 1.6 million annual test-takers as the more popular of the two.

Yet, of the nation’s roughly 3,000 colleges and universities, about 800 have dropped both tests as a requirement, and students at those schools are none the worse for wear.

A study released last month provided the first intensive look at just how students who take advantage of “test-optional” policies, “non-submitters,” are doing compared to students who applied to schools requiring the tests, “submitters.”

Following 123,000 students at 33 institutions over eight years, the difference in grades between “submitters” and “non-submitters” was just 0.05 of a GPA point. College graduation rates for “non-submitters” were just 0.6 percent lower than “submitters.”

“The high school GPA all by itself turns out to be a very widely reliable predictor of four-year college GPAs,” William Hiss, the study’s main author, told me. Hiss is the former dean of admissions at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, one of the nation’s first test-optional schools.

“Students can up their test scores if they’re coached,” Hiss said, “but our study found that kids with lower scores and strong high school grades did better than youngsters with strong scores but lesser high school records.”

The College Board claims its tests guard against the grade inflation of which high schools are often accused. Then how do we explain that GPA remains a better predictor of student success than the SAT?

If the snapshot moment of a single test can’t tell us anything we couldn’t already assess from a student’s high school record, what good is the test? A lazy way for colleges to separate students?

There’s another big moneymaker here: the test-preparation industry, which earned more than $4 billion in 2009, Wired Magazine reported. Private tutoring can cost nearly $5,000.

The College Board plans to make its online prep free for all students to counter claims that wealthier families have a test-taking advantage. Anyone think that’ll signal the end of the billion-dollar test prep industry in an age of score-obsessed students and helicopter parents believing they won’t be getting good test prep unless they pay a lot of money for it?

Funny how educators routinely complain that schools spend too much time teaching to the test, yet we’ve created an environment in which students and parents are consumed by it. But that’s good for business. If all colleges suddenly decided to drop the testing requirement, whose wallet takes the hit? Not the colleges. In fact, Hiss notes that where colleges dropped the test requirement, enrollment increased.

Something else. Current College Board President David Coleman is an architect of the controversial Common Core education standards being phased into public schools nationwide.“The College Board’s mentality,” Hiss warned, “is to ensure we can measure that curriculum on the other end.”

That metric: the SAT, to be built into the Common Core syllabus. “It’s educationally a Trojan horse,” Hiss said.

Hey, when half your revenue comes from one “horse,” you do what you can to protect it.

Too often, the reason behind much of today’s educational practice is simply about the money. Education professionals aren’t running your school districts, businessmen are. Please tell me I’m not the only one who sees a problem with this.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at

Read more articles by Bruce Maiman

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