If you’re a boomer like I am, and especially if you grew up on the East or West Coast, you have probably always been aware of the College Board. For us, it was just the company that created and administered the teenage rite of passage, the SAT (which was then called the Scholastic Aptitude Test but has now been rebranded as simply “SAT”).
And that’s probably all you thought about the College Board, if you thought about it at all: a fairly innocuous entity that seemed to be focused on the test that largely determined who went to college, and where they went to college. Was it run by the government? Was it a charity? Who knew? Who cared?
The reality might surprise you.
What people didn’t know then, and what they still seem not to understand now, even as the entity is in the news for the ongoing controversy over Florida’s involvement in amending the Advanced Placement curriculum in African American studies, is that the College Board is a business, despite its lofty mission statement, which suggests that it’s about “connect[ing] students to college success and opportunity.” Yes, it’s a not-for-profit business, but not-for-profit does not mean that it’s a charity. In fact, it’s about the furthest thing from a charity that you can imagine. Not-for-profit does not mean that it’s altruistic in its purpose; it simply means that excess revenue as profit is not distributed to private owners or shareholders but rather held by the company. (There was a brief period when the College Board changed its web domain from .org to .com, perhaps revealing more of itself than it should have, but this misstep was quickly corrected.)
Over the years, the College Board used its connections with high schools to expand the penetration of the PSAT, as a companion to the SAT; it uses the PSAT to collect names and information about students, which it then licenses to colleges who want to recruit those students as the de facto national database of high school students; it uses the results of the tests (for which half the students and half the school districts will, by definition, be below average) to promote its AP courses, to make students more “college ready” (an essentially meaningless term it invented); and it uses its substantial lobbying budget to convince legislators to make students take the SAT in order to graduate from high school, to pay for AP, and to make public universities accept the results of those exams and grant credit for them.
It’s an ingenious business model. And in America, businesses have the right to operate, as long as they don’t run afoul of the law. But like any business, the College Board should be held accountable for faults in its products and especially for public activities that contradict its mission.
When David Coleman was hired as president and CEO of the College Board in 2012, it was a business decision. As a leader of the effort to create and license Common Core, Coleman was part of the attempt to instill a national curriculum in K–12 schools, which is of course not necessarily a bad idea; one of the best and worst things about American secondary education is its widely divergent models and philosophies.
The great business opportunity at the time was to connect the SAT to Common Core. At last, it was believed, America would have a way of telling how well its students were learning. Never mind, of course, that all of this power and responsibility would be held in the boardroom of a private company that would have profited greatly from the connection to a national curriculum. (If one corporation could influence the curriculum and also create the tool used to measure achievement, school districts and states would have little choice but to use—and increase the use of—its products.) Alas, fate had other ideas, and Common Core quickly fell out of favor in the U.S. with both the left and the right—perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps because people had concerns about such intensely focused control in the hands of one company. Or, it might be said, in the hands of one man.
Coleman, it seems, has never actually taught a high school class (at least as far as the record reveals). He returned from Oxford with a master’s degree after studying on a Rhodes Scholarship, but could not find a job teaching English in a high school in New York City. Instead, he went to work at McKinsey, one of the country’s largest and best-known consulting firms, where business teaches business how to do business. In light of all this, it seems curious that America would trust someone like this to have such an outsize say in what was taught, when it was taught, and how it was taught.
His tenure at the College Board has been rife with public relations blunders, many of which might be expected at any billion-dollar business. What’s most concerning to people who work in secondary and higher education, though, is that many of these blunders seem to be, well, for lack of a better word, anti-education. And it is for these blunders that many believe the College Board should be held accountable.
Consider these actions, which seem inconsistent with a company concerned about education:
• After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, David Coleman sent an email to the membership, pointing out that student X González, a survivor of the massacre, apparently used knowledge from their AP courses in a speech they gave after the shooting. He then presumed to tell a high school student who had been traumatized by gun violence, after they went on to become an activist, that they might have been more measured and balanced in their criticism of gun laws and gun culture.
• The College Board not only hired but promoted to the executive level the speaker of the House in Indiana, Todd Huston, who supported state legislation that limited discussion of race in school classrooms, all while working at the company. In addition, in a move that would make any business proud, Coleman donated $10,000 to Huston’s campaign.
• During the pandemic, when it became clear that students would not be able to take AP exams in their traditional manner, the College Board announced that the exams would be 45 minutes in length and could be administered at home or anyplace students could connect to Wi-Fi (including the parking lot of a McDonald’s). While every organization was forced to scramble in light of COVID-19, the College Board announced—without asking anyone except long-time supporters of the College Board—that colleges would accept the results of the new, shortened AP exams, even though they provided little to no reliable statistics to demonstrate comparability between the old and new exams. Like a good business, it shirked responsibility and forced America’s universities, if they so chose, to be the bad guys in times of crisis. This was, conveniently, a good way to hedge against the massive revenue hit that would have resulted if the exams had been canceled.
• After years of promoting itself as a transparent organization, the College Board removed from public view granular data breaking down AP scores by state, race, and exam, instead providing what it called “streamlined reporting,” in a classic case of 1984-speak that would make any for-profit business proud.
• And most recently, of course, the College Board allowed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to essentially step into the role of America’s czar of high school curriculum, by bending to the will of the Florida Department of Education in dramatically whitewashing (literally and figuratively) the framework for the AP African American studies course. What’s almost as bad as following the lead of a future presidential candidate for political and business gain is the brazen lying of the College Board in initially claiming that Florida had played no role in the course redesign. Just this weekend, the College Board issued a statement, ostensibly falling on its sword for not pushing back on Florida earlier, but failing to explain how and why an organization designed to prioritize education somehow failed to take any leadership or to stake out a moral stance when Florida did what it did.
The College Board is a billion-dollar business, with over a billion dollars in assets (including as much as $150 million held in offshore accounts). It paid Coleman, its CEO, over $2.5 million in 2020, even after he had been demoted from the dual roles of president and CEO in early 2019, and paid several other executives over $500,000 in that same year, a year in which revenue dropped by $400 million.
It is no wonder that there have been frequent and repeated calls for the trustees of the College Board to remove Coleman from his position. Leadership comes with responsibilities that Coleman has clearly ignored or neglected.
Universities, too, of course, are not-for-profits, as are legitimate charities. It is not the tax status that should concern us, although perhaps a tax on some of that revenue would be warranted in the case of the College Board. What should concern us is that a private company has its tentacles so tightly wrapped around a public education system most Americans consider a public good.