Did Khan Pull Out His Disruptor? 5

Over the last few days, I’ve been texted, tweeted, gchatted, emailed and called about the release of College Board’s/Khan Academy’s SAT prep resources. I’ve been forwarded article, after article, after article, about the playing field leveling that College Board is touting its partnership with Khan Academy will bring.  I’ve been asked for my opinion and thoughts on Khan’s resources and the implications for my job and industry. So here it is, my unfiltered (mostly) thoughts on Khan Academy “Official SAT Practice.”

No self-respecting child of the 80’s and sci-fi fan should ever speak of Khan without a passing reference to Star Trek.


The partnering of Khan Academy and College Board is certainly a significant step for low income students. The key benefits of Khan’s SAT prep are:

  1. Greater opportunity and access for free – This relationship creates the opportunity for low income students to have reliable free practice, which until now has not been easily found. Students, parents, teachers, and counselors now know immediately where they can send a student to find practice tools for the SAT.
  1. High quality practice questions – Khan’s practice questions will be high quality because their relationship with the College Board will give KA a resource to verify that accuracy and appropriateness of their questions. Prior to this relationship the validity of free online SAT practice materials was questionable at best. (I’ve seen some terrible practice SAT materials both in stores and online, in fact most of the free SAT resources online are terrible.)
  1. Ease of use and access – Setting up and using KA’s site is relatively painless and in this day and age most students have probably already accessed it at some point. This means by adding SAT practice tools, they are simply improving an already useful tool. This is great for students.
  1. Integration with College Board results - In the fall there are plans to integrate further with College Board test results. PSAT and SAT test-takers will be able to add their test results to their KA accounts and get analysis and feedback. This again is great since it allows a one-stop shopping for information and analysis.
  1. Boys and Girls Clubs of America - The most interesting and least clear part of the College Board’s venture into test prep is the partnership not with Khan Academy but with the Boys and Girls Club. Reports are spotty but have indicated everything from College Board providing support setting up computer labs to College Board putting tutors in the Boys and Girls Clubs to provide actual teaching. If there is large scale free instruction supported by the College Board that will be truly interesting and helpful for low income students.
  1. Ongoing improvement - It seems that KA has an active team of professionals working to improve the product. This is amazing and bodes well because I’m anticipating that the College Board hasn’t yet finished tinkering with the SAT (and won’t finish until May 2016).

So while clearly there are great potential benefits to the advent of KA’s SAT tools, it’s also important to be aware of the limitations. Most of the articles I’ve seen about KA have ignored completely or paid scant attention to the potential problems with KA. These articles are touting Khan as the grand equalizer of economically and racially aligned score discrepancies on the SAT.  It’s not. Khan is a tool. It’s a nice, well-designed free tool. And like any tool it will only be as good as those using it. I don’t object to the existence of KA SAT tools (in fact I’m excited by them), my concern is about the impact of touting it as a solution to inequalities. Let’s explore some of the key limitations with KA:


  1. Access is not effectiveness – Khan provides OPPORTUNITY to practice. It’s ACCESS to materials. But just because you are provided access and opportunity that does not mean it will be used and if it’s not used then no matter how good it is there will be no effect or leveling of the playing field. One of my concerns about Khan’s effectiveness is about access (since there are lots of studies saying low income students do not have the same internet access or solely access the web via mobile). Living Without Broadband In 2015: How 55 Million Americans Find Jobs, Study, Watch YouTube
  1. Access is not engagement- Another of my concerns is engagement. Logging on to KA periodically when you have a sticky math problem in homework is very different from the consistent practice generally necessary to improve SAT scores. Will students be engaged enough to use the site? Historically, College Board’s prep tools have only been mildly used (I’ve been told by districts that usage of College Board’s SAT Online Course which comes free with most SAT School Day contracts is less than 10% as is use of the My College Quickstart site that is included for every PSAT test taker). Are these videos enough to keep student engaged? Pew Research: U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015
  1. Free access is free for everyone – No matter how great Khan is at providing resources for low income students, high income students will also be able to access those resources to supplement their high priced tutoring programs. Any claims that this tool will minimize the score differentials overlooks that KA tools are available to all regardless of how much the family makes.
  1. Academic preparation is not test preparation - There is a big difference between academic learning and preparing specifically for a test. College Board and Khan provide more of the academic learning (they’ve actually said so). They are focused on more academic approaches. Here is an interesting comparison by Stacey Howe-Lott of Stellar Scores on how a test prep person might do a question vs how an academic might do the same question.
  1. Testing is not the same – All the great practice in the world is generally not sufficient to replicate the experience of take a proctored exam in a crowded room with other kids sniffling and tapping and stressing. Khan will never be able to truly simulate the experience of taking the test.


So what’s the upshot of all of this? 

While Khan is shaping up to be a great resource it’s important to not get too enamored with the potential of the shiny new toy. Khan will help those who have had no access to quality free resources, but it will probably not level a playing field that is slanted at every level of education starting in utero and culminating in the workplace.  Additionally Khan has been around for years delivering lessons for everything from algebra to physics and yet somehow the teaching industry has not been disrupted, it’s unlikely this will upend the test prep industry.


The keys for taking advantage of Khan will be to start using it early and over a sustained period of time to build academic skills and gain comfort with the material on the SAT. If you don’t make the gains you want or have very little time, then it might make sense to look into actual test preparation options.


What’s your thoughts ? What did I miss? What articles or research do I need to read or link to? Please put it in the comments!

A couple of articles that get it right

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5 thoughts on “Did Khan Pull Out His Disruptor?

  • Jeremy Craig

    Very nice analysis. I also find in practice that on-line learning only works well with a small minority of students, or those with a mother sitting next to them. Funny cat videos are just a click away…

    • Akil Bello Post author

      It only makes sense. If you had a choice between dancing cats and graphing functions which would you choose?

  • Justine Henning

    Thoughtful article. One thing you left out (and Khan often seems to underestimate) is the importance of in-person / human-to-human relationships within education. Building up students’ self-confidence and helping them see their potential (by seeing it ourselves and communicating both lessons tailored to students’ individual needs/interests and our appreciation of the students themselves) is vital to the learning process. We can do great things online. But tutoring and strong classroom teaching offer a great deal more than do one-size-fits-all videos and computer- and non-educator-generated practice problems.