The College Board’s Monopoly on Paths to Higher Education

Well known to almost all college-bound Americans, the College Board is a name synonymous with dictating educational outcomes through programs like the SAT and Advanced Placement courses. Though it is legally classified as a not-for-profit organization, it is one of the wealthiest educational giants in America—in 2013 alone, profits reached $62 million, with its CEO David Coleman earning $550,000 annually.

The company often touts its programs as superior to its competitors, and these statements are often taken at face value. In this country, where secondary education and college admissions processes are becoming increasingly standardized (college and pre-college standardized testing is a $700 million a year market), this is a haunting reminder that the power of monopolistic corporations—even those labeled as non-profits—is not only creeping into consumer markets, but also the education of America’s future workforce.

In the class of 2017 alone, over 1.17 million students took at least one Advanced Placement course out of the 3.9 million who graduated that year. It is widely believed by both students and teachers that participation—not success—in AP classes is instrumental to succeeding in later high school and college years. In fact, this is cited as one of the most prominent reasons for students taking these classes in the first place.

While it is true that study skills in later years can be molded by the habits students develop earlier on, there is evidence that the core values that the Advanced Placement program teaches students can actually be detrimental to a student’s outlook on learning and growth. Especially when compared to programs like the International Baccalaureate program, which places more of a focus on analytical skills and intellectual exploration rather than following a set core curriculum, if not taught by an experienced teacher, the AP experience can be rushed, stressful, and stifling to students who want a more individualized program to explore creative interests. College Board’s increased expansion in recent years (as cited above) has made it harder and harder to tailor the curriculum to individual students’ needs and interests. This is in part due to the increased push to make the curriculum easier to teach without having to expend resources to train new instructors, promoting the suffocation of creative thinking in the AP syllabus.

While programs like the Advanced Placement Incentive Program—a U.S. Department of Education initiative which gives teachers a cash award for each passing score—are beneficial to teachers in low-income areas, they promote the mindset of “learning for the exam.” Especially because AP curricula are often extremely standardized, preparation books and rote memorization of facts are often the norm. This is especially evident in courses such as AP Biology, which requires students to memorize several detailed cellular processes and anatomical terms, and recently went through an attempted redesign process in 2013 to reduce emphasis on rote memorization.

Additionally, there is a significant drop in AP test scores for exams which are more application rather than memorization based, such as AP Physics C. This is because AP courses usually used as prerequisites for these application based classes are often memorization-based themselves and don’t test students’ lateral thinking. The mindset of “simply needing a 5” is extremely damaging to incoming college students, for whom applying the material and actually learning the concepts is more important than ever.

Even non-STEM AP programs are facing increasing backlash as these programs are harder to modify using “innovation” metrics. Yet, these courses, such as AP English Language, still have curricula that have remained stagnant over the past fifty years and failed to change to reflect current cultural trends and contemporary mindsets. For high-achieving youth, AP classes are often the only avenues for maintaining rankings and grade point averages because of the GPA “inflation” AP courses receive in many school districts. Students often pile on several of these high-workload classes at a time, exacerbating stress culture in many high-achieving school districts across the nation.

Historically, AP classes were a mainstay of a primarily white, upper-class education until the ‘90s. Evidence has been cited that the percentage of students from historically underrepresented racial and socioeconomic backgrounds taking AP classes has significantly increased over the past decade (from about 15 to 30 percent). However, the argument can be made that the availability of AP classes in schools in predominantly low-income neighborhoods doesn’t ensure that the percentage of passing scores on these AP exams taken by these low-income students has necessarily increased at the same rate as the course offerings themselves.

In an attempt for quick academic revitalization, AP programs are often quickly established with inexperienced teachers. These programs often experience growing pains. From 2003 to 2008, the number of students sitting for AP exams increased by almost 600,000 while on the other hand, the percentage of all exams receiving grades of 3 or higher declined from 62% to 58%. This is perhaps the largest indicator of the College Board’s corporation-style behavior—an expansion at this rate is an indication that maximizing profits is of utmost priority. To keep higher education focused on what its main aim should be, educating the future workforce, and not being a money-making endeavor, College Board should perhaps divert resources away from expansion, and instead, use these resources towards providing the proper training to prospective AP instructors.

Additionally, the College Board self-identifies as a non-profit, but in 2015, it made a total revenue of $916 million, of which $408 million came from administrative and instructional fees for test materials. This year, the fee to take one exam was $94. Even with the reduced fees for economically disadvantaged students, the steadily increasing administrative fees raise the question as to whether or not we are trying to pay our students’ way into academic success.

Students should be wary of the value of even taking these exams for credit as it is hard to simulate a “college environment” in the comfort and safety of a high school classroom. In fact, Dartmouth recently announced that it will no longer be accepting AP credit in any form. It is evident that there is an advent of more egalitarian admissions processes, especially in highly selective universities. So why we are still willing to pay exorbitant amounts to simply take exams and administer classes under the umbrella of an organization which claims to level the educational playing field, but makes millions in profits off of unnecessary fees?

The arguments against the College Board’s AP courses extends past just traditional academic subjects. Creative disciplines such as Studio Art are also being incorporated into AP’s course offerings, but in an era where the definition of art and culture is rapidly changing and becoming more and more inclusive, is it really valid for College Board to be implementing a score-based program for these endeavors? The increasing role of AP scores, as well as SAT scores, is starting to raise concerns about whether we are imposing one definition of academic success onto malleable high school students. Historically, humanities subjects have been the cornerstone of individualism and personal philosophy and expression. Though the College Board claims to standardize the process for students learning the humanities through AP, at the end of the day it is still a corporation which is trying to establish a blanket rubric and objective curriculum for subjects which are individualistic by nature.

Additionally, the intentions of the SAT, at the time of its conception, contrast greatly with its present uses. The early concept of the test was drawn out in 1938 in order to standardize the Harvard admissions process for predominantly rich students who did not come from Eastern boarding schools. Since then, the program has taken off. A press release from College Board details that from 2015 to 2016, the year of the much publicized SAT redesign, the number of test takers jumped by 180,000. Hotly debated over the past few years, especially after the redesign that proponents claimed evened out the playing field, is the significance of the 400-point gap between the highest and lowest income brackets taking the infamous exam. In affluent areas, SAT-prep programs and resources, especially at elite private institutions, further broaden the gap.

More and more schools have even adopted a test-optional policy, such as the University of Chicago in 2018. Both Stanford and Princeton removed the essay requirement this year, and there are similar measures being taken, especially at elite schools, to encourage a holistic admissions process which factors in economic criteria when making decisions.

Though more measures being taken to change the SAT benchmark standard for each student, based on a variety of metrics, it raises the question as to why we are still spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year preparing students for an exam which was originally designed to compare students of similar racial, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds almost one hundred years ago. In fact, the diversity of the college applicant pool has increased so much in recent years that there is an ever-present, increasingly heated debate about race-conscious college admissions.

Equality in access to educational opportunities is one of the keystones of American culture. The College Board, while claiming to operate in order to uphold this core value, may actually be doing the opposite. Evidently, millions in administrative and bureaucratic fees, as well as the general uptick in students taking the SAT and AP exams, are placing more power in the hands of this educational giant, which in turn continues to prioritize quantity over quality to perpetuate this vicious cycle. The increasing power of the College Board in determining the standard for academic success and college admissions raises the question as to whether or not we, as citizens, will allow a corporation to dictate higher education, synonymous for the future of our populace, in America.

Categories: Education

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