In the Game of Tests You Win or You Die

game-of-thrones-game-of-thrones-20575232-1160-1600This morning, as I waited for the Khan Academy to make available its “thousands of College Board/Khan Academy designed practice items” and its four official redesigned SAT practice tests, I caught up on Game of Thrones (and if you don’t know about GOT immediately stop reading this blog and go watch all 5 seasons or read the books). Naturally, the show (and lack of sleep) inspired connections and comparisons, the most interesting of which led me to ask myself which character in the world of Westeros is David Coleman? After much scholarly debate, exhaustive research, and painful soul-searching, I arrived at these three candidates. I now put it to you, fair denizens of the Digital Realm, to help me resolve the matter. Below are the contenders and my rationale for their inclusion, at the end is a poll. Enjoy!


The Holy Man


The new High Septon is devout and ascetic of nature while kindly and unassuming in appearance.  Unlike his predecessor, who compromised his religious beliefs and practices to gain material comforts and enrich wealth of the Faith of the Seven, the new High Septon holds rigidly (perhaps too rigidly) to the rules of the church and the service of the people. The new High Septon has disregarded wealth and status in his application of the rules and punishments for violations of the rules of the church. His brand of equity and support of the common man has brought queens low and raised paupers high. His brand of leadership has upended the typical relation between church and state and the Septon believes that his knowledge of what’s right (guided by the holy word) is unquestionable.

Is Coleman ignoring education practice and custom? Is Coleman going to violently disrupt the current order? Is Coleman correct about the abusive and corrupting nature of the test prep industry? Is it the test prep industry ruining the purity of the testing process and does the responsibility fall to Coleman to root out that corruption?  Is Coleman the evangelist of the education world here to recenter our mores and renorm our educational compass?


The Whoremonger

Lord Petyr Baelish, fondly known as Littlefinger, has risen from his humble beginnings to become not only a wealthy 8d27dc863633a57b6d9b20917c7fff3fmerchant (running the most successful brothel in King’s Landing) but also a landed lord in his own right. He has operated from the dark corners of society moving the visible and ostensibly more powerful players in the Game of Thrones into positions in which they are either beholden to him or subservient to him. As with our other candidates, there is a core of good to Littlefinger, there is an element of selflessness that is constantly at war with the selfishness of self-aggrandizement and preservation.

Is David Coleman the educational fleshpeddler, selling cheap wine and transient feel good moments which offer no lasting value but lull us into a feeling of comfort and security? Is Coleman operating from the fringes of education, lining up the dominoes so that the SAT and Common Core will fall the direction he wants? What is Coleman’s endgame, while it seems he isn’t seeking the throne (currently held by King Arne, first of his name) no one seems to understand what he is seeking? Are the underrepresented groups David Coleman’s Sansa Stark, to be maneuvered and positioned in what could be (after a great deal of pain and humiliation) an enormous benefit to their ultimate longevity and success?


The Imp

Tyrion Lannister is the second son of arguably the most powerful family in Westeros, yet he is torn (and motivated by) the challenge of being born a “dwarf.” Tyrion has spent much of his life competing for his father’s affection and respect against his Adonis-like brother and statuesque sister using his rapier like intellect. He made a place in the corrupt and unkind world both because of and in spite of his family name. He’s turned his not-unsubstantial wit into a weapon not only in defense of family and realm but also to hide an honest and good heart.CS 65 Friday 22nd October 2010

Does the well intentioned Tyrion reflect David Coleman’s struggle to resolve his good intentions to support students with the need to hawk his primary moneymaker (the SAT). Is Coleman’s College Board Lannisters to ETS’s Targaryens? Is Coleman merely the scion of a powerful but corrupt family struggling to do the best he can with the lot in life his is given while working to help as many in the realm as possible?




The no-newer-than-any-other-test-you’ve-never-taken SAT

As we approach the launch of the latest iteration of the SAT, more and more students, counselors, and parents are becoming worried about the “new SAT” and how these changes are going to impact scores and college admissions. These concerns have ranged from reasonable (is there some different that is unlike other tests that we know of) to illogical (will the new SAT test the “new math” and thus unknown and unknowable) to irrational (will colleges not accept the new SAT and taking it keep my child from the college of their dreams).

In hopes alleviating some of the fear and panic around this test I’ve put together this handy list of who should and who shouldn’t be concerned about the upcoming changes to the SAT. And to be clear, I’m not saying that the SAT doesn’t matter and won’t continue to matter, because it will. I’m advocating thinking carefully about how the fact that there are changes to the content of the SAT will have limited impact on most of the people who are concerned about those changes.

Let’s start with those who should ignore the “changes” hype (and just pay attention to preparing well for the test you choose to take… since you still have a choice between SAT and ACT).

  1. Classes of 2018 and onward
    Changes only matter if you have prior context or experience. Having very likely never taken any version of the SAT or PSAT, the classes of 2018 and after should completely ignore all the talk of the changes to the SAT. The version of the SAT they take will be the first and likely only version of the SAT they have ever seen. They should prepare for it much like students have been preparing for the SAT for years. These students should currently be planning their college application timelines and determining when they are going to take exams and focusing on the academic skills they are learning in school that will have lasting value. Any discussion of the old SAT versus the new SAT are completely irrelevant and distracting noise. Students in the class of 2018 and later should no more be worried about the new SAT and its changes than they are about the changes college professors are making to their grading criteria.
  2. Students who are planning to take the redesigned SAT
    Any student who has already determined that they will be taking the redesigned SAT (whether it’s because they are seeking the National Merit Scholarship, schedule doesn’t permit them to take the SAT before the new test launches in March, their school is providing the new SAT for free, etc) should also ignore all the chatter about the changes. Once you’ve reached a decision about which test you are taking it no longer matters that that test is different than it used to be, it only matters what it will be when you take it. The only reason to be aware that it has changed is to ensure that you aren’t practicing with outdated material or information.
  3. Parents
    As a parent your concern shouldn’t be with the newness or changedness of the test but rather with how to make sure your child is best prepared for the test. That preparation might mean choosing to take a different test (since there is the option of SAT or ACT) so as to best display her academic abilities. For most parents your role will remain what it has always been and will continue to be for a long time: the planner, the payer, and the helper. This was true for the 1926 SAT, the 1974 version, as well as the 1994 and 2005 versions (Want to see the history of SAT changes? click here) and will be true when they revise the SAT again in 6 – 10 years. Until then you just need to worry about figuring out how to guide and support your child in taking the test they choose to take, not worrying about the details of the changes.

And now who should be concerned about the fact that the SAT has changed.

  1. College Board
    College Board should and is really concerned about the new SAT. They are concerned that the new test might drive more test-takers to their competition (the ACT) in the short-term and exacerbate the market shift that’s been happening over the last few years. The College Board also has the additional concern that the new test won’t perform as advertised, hoped, or projected. What if, instead of scores being distributed on a nice happy normally distributed bell curve, the results for the redesigned SAT are skewed toward an average score of 650 per section (anyone else remember recentering aka tweeking the curve)? What will happen if the results are completely out of wack with all beta testing? Will colleges still require or accept these scores? Will the changes to the SAT to “align it with the work of schools” (read: align with Common Core) exacerbate the Test Optional movement? The College Board has lots of reasons to be concerned.
  2. ACT
    The team at the Iowa-based newly crowned king of college testing has lots of reasons to worry about the changes to the SAT. Since many of the changes to the SAT address criticisms of the old SAT, ACT is rightly concerned that test-takers may return to ETS’s warm bosom and the comfort of the “known” college admission exam. In redesigning its test, College Board not only address many criticisms of its exam but also took direct shots at perceived areas of superiority that the ACT possessed (and often touted). ACT has lots to be concerned about as it must wonder if this newest SAT (or doppelganger ACT) will retake its position at the top of the psychometric food chain.
  3. Test prep companies and tutors
    Test prep professionals are the ones who should be most concerned about the changes to the SAT. These changes mean that if you’re a test prep person doing your job right you’ve got to learn new stuff and you’ve got to create or find new materials. Changes to the test, while usually causing a spike in business, cause a great deal of work and research for test prep folk. It will take test prep community a while to gather and analyze sample questions and tests in order to learn the ins and out of the new test and the quarks and nuances that can most easily be turned into points. Test prep folks are and should be concerned about the changes, burning the midnight oil, and clicking refresh thousands of times on release days for new samples from College Board.
  4. College counselors of students in the class of 2017
    College counselors should be mildly concerned about the changes to the SAT, especially for the next 12 – 18 months where there are still 3 viable options for college admissions tests. While choice is often good, too many choices just create a big confusing mess, this will probably be true for counselors and students in the class of 2017 until March 2016. Counselors are going to struggle to figure out which of the three college admission tests to recommend, how to interpret the results of the new SAT and PSAT, and how colleges are going to handle comparing students taking different tests. Yes, counselors working with current sophomores will have a bit to be concerned about relative to the changes.
  5. Class of 2017
    Students in the class of 2017 are right to be a little concerned about changes. This class took the old format PSAT, and if they liked it, they may be rightly concerned that the new test might not be as easy for them to get a good score (anytime there is change, how an individual student will handle that change is nigh-impossible to predict). The introduction of the new test will create confusion and thus concern for students. These students who’ve taken the PSAT formatted after the current SAT had some understanding of what they were soon to face, however the introduction of the new SAT could make that 2.5 hour preview entirely moot.

To make a long blog short, not many students or their families should be worried about the newness or changedness of the test until they determine that it actually impacts them. If you’ve determined that you’re going to take the new SAT than its not the newness or changedness of the test that matters so much as making sure you properly prepare (which means ensuring that you have up-to-date practice materials and resources. Unsurprisingly these same preparation concerns have been true since the invention of testing and thus the real concern is not that changes but proper preparation.


The Dire Consequences of Teaching Ambiguity

"test" of dubious veracityRecently I came across this image on the Book of Faces (the book that makes you learn surprising and frightening things about people you thought you knew and now might not want to know. But I digress.) and number of people who seem to miss core issues that this image brings to a head surprises me. While for many this image shows a funny creative student who probably didn’t study and tried to get away with it; for me this test is an example of one of the reasons that many students struggle on admissions tests (and other standardized tests). It is also indicative of how enforced conformation to societal “norms” stymies our most creative thinkers. Yup, for me, this test is an indictment of not the student but the educational system that doesn’t properly train teachers or students. It’s an indictment of the refusal of many of those in power to look inward and acknowledge their own errors and flaws.

And for many students, especially our most vulnerable, this is indicative of the type of interaction that hurts their educational progress, stymies their growth, and ill-prepares them for future tests and future work. But don’t take my word for it, let’s breakdown what’s going on in this image.

Continue reading The Dire Consequences of Teaching Ambiguity


The Questions I Get Asked

Recently, I was invited by a small group of mothers to a home to discuss the college admissions process and standardized testing. These moms are well to do and college educated. They are also mostly African-American. Among the many questions and topics of discussion were the questions listed below. I’m just going to post them without commentary and allow you to draw from it what you will.


-How much do test scores really matter to colleges and universities?
-How should I prepare my child for the college admissions tests?
-In general, what are some strategies and support that position students of color for test taking success?
– Do students of color spend as much time preparing for standardized tests?

– Do you perceive students of color to feel as confident about taking the tests? Will the new SAT be helpful to test results in general?


A Tale of Two College Processes

With close of the “college application season,” I’m once again reminded of the stark differences in the college application process for students from low income families and that for the 1%. With every blog or article I read, I’m continually reminded how divided America is in every way. Divided informationally. Divided experiencially. Divided economically. Divided racially. Divided educationally. Just divided. This division is no small matter, it’s a chasm that starts with access to pre-k programming, blossoms in primary school, matures throughout higher education, and culminates in the workplace. The college admissions process is not immune to these conditions and concerns (despite its theoretical claims to a meritocracy). In fact, the college application and admission process may be the very nexus of these myriad issues and bring to a head the years-long growth of inequity between the haves and have-nots. But since I can’t address, cure, or understand all the ills of society, I’ll just explore differences between the college preparation and application process for the haves and have-nots (and yes I’ll ignore America’s shrinking middle class).

Continue reading A Tale of Two College Processes


The Perils of Calculator Permission

As the College Board gears up to launch the revised SAT in March of 2016, one of the changes coming is a seemingly minor revision of the rules for the Math sections. This revision will change the 20 year old policy that has allowed the indiscriminate the use of calculators on math sections and may have a huge impact on test-takers. The current SAT has 3 scored math sections and in each section test-takers are allowed to use a calculator, or not, as they see fit. The current test makes no distinction (either implicit or explicit) among the math sections about the necessity or appropriateness of calculator usage. Well Interestingly, when the revised SAT launches it will have 2 scored math sections and in one of the two sections calculator use will be forbidden. While the College Board seems to be soft-selling this as if it will be no major change, I’m not certain at all that the impact of this change in procedure won’t have a deleterious impact. Having worked with teens in test preparation for more than 20 years, this distinction has me worried about unintended consequences. What immediately pops to mind are the following questions:

  • Will the inclusion of a “calculator permitted” section translate to this calculator dependent generation as “calculator necessary”?
  • Will the mention of calculator permitted cause additional stress for students who do not have a calculator or cannot afford a “good” calculator?
  • Is the college board assuming that students will all be made aware of the fine distinction between permitted and necessary prior to taking the exam?
  • Will this seemingly small change to the SAT hurt scores of the most vulnerable populations?

Continue reading The Perils of Calculator Permission


The Sky is Falling!

Among my least favorite things that come with the fall season are pumpkin spice everything, the college ranking freak out, and the data misinterpretation that stems from the release of the yearly state SAT scores. Each year after the College Board releases data on the average scores you get a new round of newspaper articles and 6 o’clock news reports on whether that state’s (or district’s) scores have fallen or risen. But what is consistently left out in the rush to report is any attempt at providing relevance and meaning to the numbers. Let’s check out some of this year’s journalistic gems: Continue reading The Sky is Falling!


College Board or Test prep Companies: Who Has it Right?

One of the more interesting debates of the past 30 years has been the efficacy test prep programs. In one corner you have College Board (CB) citing a seemingly vast number of studies that support the idea that test prep is at best minimally effective. Many of us have likely heard or read College Board reports that suggest that SAT scores are near immutable and that from one test to the next scores will only change by negligible amounts. In the other corner you have a billion dollar test prep industry making score claims that fly in the face of all information given by College Board. Additionally, many of us also have friends (or have friends who have friends) whose children attended prep classes and improved by 200 or 300 points.


Reading the papers and following the blogs, one is led to believe that the only choice families and schools have is whether to believe the “evil test creator” who seemingly exists to torture kids with 4-hour long tests or the “greedy test prep companies” who are bilking families out of billions of dollars by making them pay for prep that doesn’t work. Faced with this conflicting information one could easily be confused about who’s right, what the real story is, and what to do to help your child or student. How do parents, educators, administrators or students sort through the noise and determine how to put their child in a position to succeed on these tests (and more importantly get into college). Let’s explore the factors that lead to the disagreement and shed some light on the issue.

Continue reading College Board or Test prep Companies: Who Has it Right?