Sunday, April 30, 2017

I Keep Going To College Board Presentations: SAT/PSAT Status Report Spring 2017

As a former college counselor and current representative for Method Test Prep (a company that works with over 1,000 schools nationwide to help students prepare for the SAT and ACT) I have a strong interest in changes to standardized testing for college admissions. Whenever I attend a national or regional conference where the College Board (parent of the SAT) or ACT, Inc. plan to give a presentation on their latest and greatest, you can count on me to be there. I've actually been to quite a few of these presentations now, and in late April attended the latest update from the College Board on how high schools and colleges can use the PSAT and SAT. It was fairly interesting, and as always I've included my thoughts along with a summary.  If you missed any of the previous installments, here they are:

In September 2015 the whole college admissions industry was curious to hear what the College Board had to say about the upcoming wholesale rewrite (reinvention?) of the SAT; the session in April 2016 was marked by a capacity audience's naked hostility to the College Board representatives fumbling attempts to explain what had been a rocky rollout of the new test. In September of 2016, the most noteworthy aspect of College Board president David Coleman's presentation at the National Association for College Admission Counseling was his frequent, explicit apologies for the poor communication and execution of the rollout of the new assessment.

In late April I attended this spring's College Board presentation at the Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admission Counseling (PCACAC) annual conference in Williamsburg, Virginia. The official title of the session was "The New SAT: Mid Year Review Session-Doing More With Data". Note that this presentation was also offered on the same day at the annual conference for the Southern, Texas and Rocky Mountain ACACs, so my guess is that if you have the chance to attend a regional ACAC meeting this spring you can see a version of this for yourself.  The PCACAC version featured Amy Miranda, a Higher Ed rep from the College Board, Josh Lubben from University of Maryland (who was on the panel the year before) and Edrika Hall, of Prince George's county public schools along with Ms. Allen. I expect that if you get to see this presentation in your area it will feature a college and high school representative from your region.

As I mentioned before, last year's version of this talk draw a crowd of over 100 that overflowed the capacity of the room in which it was held; this year's attendance was only about 30. Perhaps the diminished audience was due to other interesting sessions scheduled at the same time (several people told me they went to the one on applying to British universities, for instance) but the smaller crowd, of which about 2/3 were high school counselors or independent educational consultants, was attentive and interested. 

My perception (and if anyone from the College Board is reading this, please correct me) is that they expected the mix to be closer to 50/50, or perhaps to be skewed more towards the college side. After all, now that they've straightened out test procedures and score reporting, the big unanswered questions (such as the ETA for an official rubric to compare new SAT scores to the ACT) seem to be more on the college side of the process. Either way, the session was divided to spend the first half on high school and the second half on college and there was lots of information for everyone.

The counselors in last year's audience was resentful of being referred to as "K12 teachers", and this year the speakers tried to address that head on by focusing on the tools that school districts and schools could use to analyze student performance on the SAT (as well as the PSAT, PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9. The presentation began by discussing the successes of "Counselor Week", which was a week of special programming after the release of PSAT scores but before students could see them. According to the presentation there was a 165% increase in educators logging in to access test scores compared to last school year and most of the high school part of the audience indicated that they had done so themselves.

While this topic was interesting, it sort of elided the serious problems with score reporting in 2016--a year when students got scores before schools could parse them, where schools expected materials to be sent that had been discontinued, and where the College Board was uncommunicative at best and brusque and dismissive at worst when counselors had questions or complaints. This was why the upfront and frequent apologies in Coleman's speech were so appreciated. Unfortunately, whether through a corporate decision that all apologies had been made, or a personal style that tends toward brusqueness, Ms. Allen did not follow Coleman's lead. In fact, she started by saying "You should all be familiar with the K-12 portal now, correct? So I'm not showing you anything you don't already know."  This was borderline confrontational, and from my seat in the back of the room I saw several people indicate some surprise at the tone.

The K12 portion of the session focused on the data available on students and how to use it. They spent quite a lot of time discussing their "College And Career Readiness Benchmarks", a proprietary rating that purports to predict grades of C or better in college courses. These numbers are very important for the increasing number of states that require all high school students to take the SAT prior to graduation (it often figures into the state's rating for the high school), but they are not really relevant to college admissions. In fact, it struck me that the College Board really shouldn't keep referring to the Benchmarks as "BMs", considering what so many people think the numbers are full of...

Ms. Hall from Prince George's county explained that her district has fully bought into the College Board offerings: they use the PSAT 8/9 for high school course placement, they use the AP Potential report to "identify and recruit" students for Advanced Placement courses, and since all 11th graders in Maryland have to prove that they are "college and career ready", the district utilizes the SAT to demonstrate this status. Students who do not meet the threshold are required to use Khan Academy to brush up on the content before taking the test again as a senior.  Clearly this was meant to be seen as a model for other schools to adopt. My 19 year career was in independent schools, which I can imagine would balk at this suggestion, but I can imagine this being a very popular model in public schools in the coming years. And a profitable one for the College Board...

A member of the audience asked Ms. Allen how to use this kind of data to help students, which led to a discussion of the Khan Academy practice tools. According to the presentation, 1.1 million students linked their College Board accounts to Khan Academy. This is unquestionably a big number, but when one considers that nearly 7 million people took the SAT or PSAT in 2015-16 (and presumably the number will be similar this year) use of Khan is not as prevalent as it could be. The College Board considers an "active user" of Khan to be anyone who has completed at least one practice SAT problem (which means I am an active user, having answered at least three questions!) and claim that there are over 200,000 active users (not unique users) in any given week, and that on average they use the program for 44 minutes/week. They also claim (without explaining their source) that there has been a 10% drop in "paid-for commercial test prep resources".

If hundreds of thousands of students per week are actively spending about an hour each week preparing for the SAT it is unquestionably a good thing, but I wonder how true this is. Working as I do for "paid-for commercial test prep", I can confidently say that we are working with more students than we did last year. I can also say that while I am a huge fan of the College Board's partnership with Khan Academy, I do feel that there is a problem with the College Board's telling schools to refer kids to Khan since there is no way for a school official (counselor, administrator, teacher) to be able to know a) whether or not the student is working with Khan, and b) whether or not they are actually learning anything. In fact, this is the biggest selling point for Method Test Prep, as we can offer schools robust reporting tools that let them track student progress through our program. 

After the high school section was completed, the second half of the talk focused on colleges. Literally zero of the higher education part of the audience had logged into the College Board portal, which Ms. Miranda accepted with a rueful grin--she clearly expected a low number! Ms. Miranda was an excellent presenter, with a friendly, self-deprecating approach to the material and I found her engaging and collegial. Most of the information that she had to show described how admission offices could see summary data on the students who sent scores to their institutions. The college people in the audience were interested, but I saw several perusing spreadsheets on their laptops; this might be due to the date being a week before May 1--audiences at summertime ACAC meetings might be more attentive.

What stood out to me the most was that colleges can supplement the SAT data with College Board's "Enrollment Planning Service" (for $7,300 per year) to see overlap data on the students who send them their scores. In other words, they can see a ranked list of the other colleges to which students sent their scores. This was presented to us as being something they would get on a .pdf form, but it seemed like there might be a way to dig deeper to see the other destinations for test scores on an individual basis. Important clarification: I've been in touch with Ms. Miranda and she has confirmed that as far as colleges seeing overlap data for individual, specific students, "the answer is a definite NO. Enrollment Planning service and Higher Ed Portal users only get aggregate information and do not have the ability to drill down to the individual student level. As part of our commitment to protecting students' privacy, we never share individual student information unless directed by students (score sending)."

That said, the SAT and PSAT generate lots of useful data, such as reports on "top feeder high schools", "top geomarkets" and summary data on ethnicity/race and first generation college goer status. Currently, colleges and universities around the country pay large amounts of money to consultants to help them identify, market to, and recruit their classes. I wonder if the College Board's new focus on this kind of data will have deleterious effects on some of those consultant companies? And if the College Board intends to take some of that market for itself?

All in all, I thought that this presentation from the College Board was interesting, if far less controversial than previous ones I had attended. In a lot of ways, of course, this must be an easier presentation to put together: while last year's snafus required the College Board people to say "we will have reports and tools for you--trust us", now they were able to actually show completed offerings that have been used by many of the people in the audience. I was a little surprised that they still had nothing to say about an SAT/ACT concordance, and would have wished that Ms. Allen had been more conciliatory and taken more of a customer service approach, but I think that this presentation shows a College Board that is confident in their test, their tools, and their position in the market. After years of uncertainty due to changes in the test, this is a "new normal", and it will be interesting to see going forward whether the College Board opts for continued humility or becomes the 800 pound gorilla it used to be. Time will tell!

Monday, February 6, 2017

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit to Guilford College

In mid-January I was passing through North Carolina and decided to pay a visit to Guilford College, in Greensboro. I'm so glad that I did! I think that I've previously mentioned in this space that I am an alumn of Hampshire College, and so it's understandable that I have a soft spot for small, liberal arts colleges that give students a chance to form close mentorship relationships with faculty while also fostering a deep focus on issues of social justice. All I knew previously about Guilford was that it was a Quaker college, and that one of my former students went there and loved it. Now that I've seen it up close I can see why. Guilford would be a great match for students interested in pursuing public service during and after college, but I think it would also be a very good fit for a student who wants a "small" college with "big" college spirit and sports. It's definitely one of the most interesting colleges I've visited in the last few years, and I recommend it heartily.

Guilford College At A Glance

Just under 2,000 undergraduates (approximately 53% women/ 47% men). Guilford is somewhat selective, having accepted about 1,800 of their 3,000 applicants to fill a first-year class of 350-- an overall acceptance rate of around 60%. 
Programs of Study:
38 majors and 56 minors for undergraduates; students can also combine majors into a customized area of study. Pre-dentistry, pre-medical, pre-ministerial, pre-engineering and pre-law programs. Guilford students can get Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Music degrees. 
NCAA Division III; 18 varsity teams (9 women's, 9 men's); numerous club and intramural sports.
Campus Life:
Over 44 clubs and organizations on campus; no fraternities or sororities. On campus housing is guaranteed and virtually all students live on or near campus. Greensboro is a vibrant, interesting city a short drive away but nice shopping and dining options are within walking distance.
Costs & Aid:
Tuition, room & board and fees total just about $48,000 (depending on housing and meal plan options).  Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). 
Guilford has Early Decision, Early Action and Regular admissions options. The ED deadline is November 1, the EA deadline is December 1, and the RD deadline is rolling (which means that it's still a good idea to apply sooner rather than later). Students use the Common App or Guilford's own application.
Guilford is test-optional, so students do not need to send ACT or SAT scores if the tests don't show them at their best. But applicants who opt to forego sending test scores will need submit an academic portfolio that includes at least two examples of writing, one of which must have teacher grades on it. 

Photo by Courtney Lewis ©2017

Guilford College traces its history back to 1837, and played a role in the Underground Railroad in antebellum North Carolina; in 1990 the entire campus was added to the list of national historic places. Guilford became a four-year college in 1888, and has always been co-educational. Guilford has also always been associated with the Society of Friends, or Quakers. According to Assistant Director of Admission Fernando Gomes, while Quaker heritage is still very important to Guilford, it is not a "religious" school; only 6% of students are Quakers, and while there are "planned meetings" on Sundays, the campus ministry building hosts over 15 different religious organizations. 

Guilford students call professors and administrators by their first names. Having had the same experience at my college, it takes getting used to at first, but really goes a long way towards building the sense of being part of a community of scholars. Guilford seems to be a "liberal" campus, but (perhaps due to its Quaker background), one that is very welcoming of divergent beliefs and one that has a much more diverse population than I would have expected. Some of that diversity is economic: according to the Federal government's College Scorecard, 43% of Guilford's students come from families that earn less than $40,000--that is a large number (compared to, say, Duke University, which comes up at 14% or UNC-Chapel Hill, which has 21% of students from low-income families). A further example of diversity includes a freshman class this year with 49% students of color.

Photo by Courtney Lewis
The Guilford admissions office works hard to give visitors a personalized experience; besides the usual information session students get a personalized meeting with an admissions officer and I received a lovely handwritten card from Jocelyn, my super tour guide, about 10 days after the visit.  As you can see from the picture at left, I also had my own visitor's parking space! This doesn't seem to be a level of treatment just for visiting admissions professionals, because a young woman was visiting that day with her father, and she had a parking space too. 

The campus is just beautiful. Brick architecture, mature trees and sloping, expansive green spaces are the highlights. There is also a thriving working farm (which contributes much of its produce to the campus dining hall and also to local food charities) that I did not get to see on my visit. Guilford College is located in Greensboro, the seat of Guilford County and part of the 'Piedmont Triad' which also includes High Point and Winston-Salem. The area is home to over a quarter million people and is considerably more liberal than the majority of the state (North Carolina voters narrowly preferred President Trump to Secretary Clinton in 2016, but the former First Lady won Guilford county by almost 20 percentage points). Greensboro and its surrounding area has sports, music, arts and a thriving dining scene that makes it seem like a very congenial place to spend four years of one's life.

According to Mr. Gomes, the most popular fields of study at Guilford are business, creative writing, psychology, health sciences and the BFA in studio art. According to their latest alumni magazine (pro tip: always take a copy of campus publications) Guilford is adding a new major in Cyber and Network Security that will be the first one in North Carolina to feature 100% face to face classes. Other popular programs include sport science, sports management and exercise science, not surprising on a campus where over 1/3 of the students are athletes. If that number sounds high to you, it is; in fact, the deeper you look, the more amazing it is, because over 150 people play on the football team!  The size of the football team has a couple of interesting (probably unintended) consequences:
  1. the ratio of men to women is much closer to 50/50 than at other similar institutions
  2. it is very likely that every student knows someone on the football team
That second one might seem trivial, but it's not. I have worked with a lot of students who have said that they would prefer a smaller school, but they really want to have a football team to cheer for. Guilford gives the best of both worlds--students can be part of the panoply of college football, but compared to a bigger school they might actually be cheering for their friends, not just for laundry.

There is a lot to do on campus, ranging from the school newspaper and radio stations, to political and religious groups, to intramural athletics; but the strongest emphasis is placed on service opportunities. Guilford makes a point to have its curriculum (in and out of class) reflect their seven core values:
  1. Community
  2. Diversity
  3. Equality
  4. Excellence
  5. Integrity
  6. Justice
  7. Stewardship
Photo by Courtney Lewis ©2017
Everywhere I turned I saw examples of student work to make the world a better place, and it is impossible to imagine that anyone could attend Guilford and not be motivated to try to help others, either in the local environs of Greensboro, or on the other side of the globe (48% of students study abroad during their time at Guilford). From the farm center to the solar panels to the dining hall to the emphasis on community service Guilford tries to act locally to make a difference globally. They even have special elliptical machines in the gym that help power the building, and the faculty office building has a shower to encourage professors to bike to work.  That building (Archdale Hall) is the oldest on campus, but was recently renovated to attain LEED Silver status while still retaining its 19th century charm. Good job, Guilford!

The campus was full of art that made me think--I was particularly impressed by a series of posters I saw all over the campus (pictured at left) about consent. I also liked the statue outside of the science building that was a bike stand shaped like an endorphin molecule (for the pleasure derived from exercise) and the murals near the community service offices that showed Guilford students at work all over the world.

Guilford has six dorms, three themed houses and two apartment complexes on campus. Pricing for housing varies with the levels of amenities, but all of the rooms have air conditioning, a necessity in humid North Carolina! There is no Greek life at Guilford, but the themed options (Environmental Sustainability, Sustainable Farming, and Cross Cultural and International) are there for people who like to live with like minded peers.

As you'd expect from a small college, students get to work closely with their professors. There is a 14:1 student to professor ratio, but small classes are the rule, not the exception. My tour guide, Jocelyn, is an education major and she has had classes with as few as three and six students. In fact, the largest one she's had was introduction to psychology, with 26 students, which is remarkably small for such a typically oversubscribed course. Students sit around a table, or with desks arranged in a circle to help break down the hierarchy and make classes a place for discussion and collaboration. 

Photo by Courtney Lewis ©2017
Admissions-wise, applicants can choose from a binding Early Decision plan, a non-binding Early Action plan, or regular, rolling decision options. Guilford claims to take a "holistic" view of applicants. Unlike some much larger schools, (such as the University of Virginia), I actually believe Guilford when they say this. Partly it is due to the comparatively small number of applicants (around 3,000), of whom more than half will be admitted, but also it is due to the self-selecting nature of Guilford students. Mr. Gomes said that they are looking for "self-awareness" and "open-mindedness" which are not common among 18 year-olds, and are even more difficult to convey in a college essay. If at all possible, I think that interested students and their families should try to visit the campus to meet the admissions staff--this will help reinforce your case.

Another aspect of "holistic" admissions is Guilford's test optional admissions method. To take advantage of this, students submit a portfolio of work including at least one example of graded expository writing, and one that can be un-graded along with optional artistic, musical or other examples of student work. This is growing more common, and it's a good idea for students (especially those who do not score very highly on standardized testing) to get in the habit of keeping their school work when they get it back from teachers just in case they can use it as part of their application to college.

Photo by Courtney Lewis ©2017
I have visited dozens of colleges in my time, and I always look at a school through two lenses: first, to see if I can recommend it to one of my students, and second if I would want to go there. Guilford is absolutely a place that I will recommend to a wide variety of students, and it's also a place that I wish I could attend myself. The friendliness, the collegiality, and the unwavering focus on social justice and improving the world are an unbeatable combination. For a student who wants to be actively involved in her/his learning, who is interested in the planet and the people who live here, who wants to make sure that everything they study has a "values" component, and who is interested in being part of a lively community with strong school spirit, Guilford would be a great place to look; it's on the short list of my favorite colleges in America.

Monday, December 19, 2016

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit to the University of Mary Washington

Ever since I moved to Virginia in 2015 I've been struck by how many students and families aspire to gain admission to one of the many state colleges and universities in the Commonwealth. But the more I've learned, the less surprised I am; Virginia public colleges and universities have something to offer everyone, and at very competitive price points. Last week I had the chance to visit the University of Mary Washington, a small-to-medium sized institution in Fredericksburg, and I was quite impressed. I would not hesitate to recommend it to a student looking for challenging academics in a nurturing community with ample chances to work closely with a talented faculty.

University of Mary Washington At A Glance

A little over 4,300 undergraduates (approximately 64% women/ 36% men). UMW is somewhat selective, having accepted about 4,500 of their 5,500 applicants to fill a first-year class of 972-- an overall acceptance rate of around 80%. Despite being a public university, UMW does not put a quota on Virginians, so this might be a good choice for out of state students.
Programs of Study:
50 majors and 35 minors for undergraduates; students can also combine majors into a customized area of study. Pre-dentistry, pre-medical, pre-veterinary and pre-law programs. Master's degrees awarded in education, business and geospatial analysis.
NCAA Division III; 22 varsity teams (12 women's, 10 men's); numerous club and intramural sports.
Campus Life:
Over 130 clubs and organizations on campus; no official Greek life. On campus housing is guaranteed for the first two years. Fredericksburg is a quiet city a short walk away; it's conveniently located one hour south of Washington, D.C. and one hour north of Richmond on Interstate 95.
Costs & Aid:
Tuition, room & board and fees total just about $23,000 for Virginians, and about $37,000 for non-residents.  Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). UMW touts their distribution of over $35 million in financial aid (though this includes loans).
UMW has Early Action AND Early Decision as well as Regular Decision options. The ED deadline is November 1, the EA deadline is November 15, and the RD deadline is February 1. Students use the Common App.
Students must send official scores for the SAT or ACT. Mid 50% of the old SAT was 1040-1230 (CR+M) and 23-28 for the ACT. There is a test-optional application method available to students with high school GPAs over 3.5, but not if they want to be in the honors or nursing programs.

For over a century, the University of Mary Washington (UMW) has continued to evolve, growing from a women's college, to a co-ed college to a university with an expansive campus and excellent facilities. UMW is a great option for first-generation college students; about 1/3 of their undergrads are the first in their families to attend college, and the University has several programs in place to help students of all backgrounds make a smooth transition to higher education.  This also helps give a certain level of diversity that may be lacking elsewhere.

During my visit I was impressed by the campus, which is deceptively big. Driving up to the university it seems nestled in a residential neighborhood of Fredericksburg, a small city halfway between Virginia's capital city of Richmond (to the south) and Washington, D.C. (to the north), but once I arrived on campus, it was much larger than I thought. All told, between parking my car, walking to the admissions office, going on the tour, and getting back to my car was 6,000 steps, according to my iPhone. Dorms, dining halls, the library and fitness center and academic spaces are pretty spread out, so students at UMW do a lot of walking!

During the information session we were told that the most popular fields of study at the University of Mary Washington are business, psychology, history and the sciences. They are particularly proud to have the #1 historic preservation program in the country. UMW students can also partake of 5-year education and business programs to get master's degrees, and there are pre-professional tracks for future doctors, lawyers, dentists and veterinarians; additionally, the university is in the early stages of planning a program that would give students a Master of Science in Nursing degree. The University touts its study abroad program; we were told "you can go anywhere but North Korea, and if you want to go there you haven't thought it through". That's a witty line, but they do seem to have a wide range of options, and financial aid travels with students. Finally, the honors program is available to any student with a high school GPA of 4.0 or above with 1300 SAT/29 ACT. Those are lofty numbers, but students who qualify get a research grant in their junior year, priority scheduling and access to an "honors lounge". Interested? If so, there is an extra essay on the Common App.

One thing that struck me on my visit was that UMW has many of the features of a university while combining the size and accessibility of a mid-sized college. The average class size is 22, but my tour guide (a senior) mentioned that she had a class of six last year. All of the courses are discussion based, seminar style classes and there are no graduate teaching assistants. Besides giving undergraduates greater access to research opportunities and resources, it also makes for a campus where students and faculty can forge tight bonds. I heard several stories of professors looking out for students' welfare and going over and above the call of duty to make sure that students were healthy and succeeding. The overall vibe was of a group of educators who really wanted to help their students succeed. I think that students who want to have the chance to find a mentoring relationship with their professors should take a close look at the University of Mary Washington.

The University has a wide array of Division III, club and intramural sports. No football, wrestling or ice hockey, but most other popular sports, along with some unusual options, like equestrian, and burgeoning club programs in rugby, rowing and fencing to name just a few. There is a very extensive fitness center/athletics center attached to the library that seems to be the nexus of student healthiness and would appear to give every conceivable option to students looking to stay in shape. 

The information session and my tour guide both reinforced the idea that with over 120 clubs and organizations there is a lot to do on campus. One thing that impressed me was the emphasis that was placed on service related organizations. Quite a few student groups seem focused on campus based or community based outreach and service opportunities. UMW does not seem to have an official Greek life, but in talking to the tour guide, it appears that many of the sports teams serve as loci for gatherings and group bonding. Students overwhelmingly stay on campus on weekends and there is apparently a lot to do at school, in town, and a short drive away. 

UMW has 17 residence halls and apartments, ranging from traditional dormitory rooms, to suites to modern furnished luxury apartments across US 1 and connected to the campus by a sky bridge. Housing is guaranteed for the first two years and 70% of students stay on campus all four years of their college careers. The dormitory we were shown was clean and comfortable; most impressive was that we were shown an actual student's room! This rarely happens anymore, and I appreciated seeing an authentic space, as opposed to a Bed, Bath and Beyond window display. The room was a traditional double, and while small, it seemed like it would be perfectly comfortable. First year students are housed with the other members of their First Year Seminar class, which helps make sure that students are prepared for the writing, speaking, and creative and critical thinking skills they will need for the next four years.

Another thing that stood out for me was the emphasis on UMW's honor code. Like the University of Virginia and other institutions in the state, UMW has a simple code ("a student will neither lie, cheat nor steal") that defines a myriad of interactions every day. Students can feel safe leaving their belongings at a table, or leaving a door unlocked because their possessions will not be molested. I heard multiple stories of professors giving students their end of term exams, then saying "I'll be in my office if you need me", trusting students to take the tests un-proctored, without fear of cheating.   I heard similar stories at the University of Virginia, but it is nice that students looking for a smaller, more intimate campus can still have this experience at the University of Mary Washington. My tour guide said that the honor code was a reason why she chose UMW, and I'm sure that she isn't alone in that sentiment.

Admissions-wise, I found it very interesting to learn that (unlike, say, the University of Virginia) there is no quota requiring a certain percentage of students to be Virginians. The majority of students ARE from the Commonwealth, but UMW could be a good option for students from other states for several reasons, including the relatively reasonable cost. $37,000 is the total cost before financial aid for non-Virginians, which is a pretty competitive price. 

Students who want to apply can choose from several plans (Early Action, Early Decision, Regular Decision) and will be reviewed "holistically and individually"--this is a reason why the essay is "a huge part of a student's application", so don't phone in the writing portion!  There is "no rigid formula" for admission, but they want to see students who have challenged themselves with the most rigorous curricula available at their schools. Standardized test-wise, the mid-50% of accepted students' test scores are not super high, so UMW should be achievable for a wide range of good students. There IS a test optional path, but it is only available to students with at least a 3.5 GPA in high school, and there are quite a few other exceptions, so it is worth reading carefully to decide if it is best for you. Students who apply test optional will have their strength of curriculum play an even larger role in the decision, so it probably isn't for low test scorers who didn't push themselves in the classroom.

The University of Mary Washington has a lot to offer to any student, but I think it is a great choice for a student who is looking for a challenging college curriculum but who would like the support of a faculty and administration that puts its focus on teaching and student achievement. For Virginians, the cost (around $22,000) is extremely reasonable and even for out of state students it could be a competitive option, especially for wealthier families. The University of Mary Washington seems to be a place that will support students as they go through their college careers, and will make sure that they are prepared to succeed. Perhaps this is why 95% of students are in graduate school or their chosen career field six months after graduation?  I think that any student interested in a small to medium sized university, especially someone who wants to have the chance to work closely with professors for four years, should give the University of Mary Washington a close look.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

NACAC 2016: Observations On Presentations About the SAT and ACT

Every year in September the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) has its annual conference. NACAC is a great organization made up of high school counselors, independent educational consultants and college and university admission officers and I'm proud to have been a member for years. Along with 6,000 other professionals I attended this year's event in Columbus, Ohio as part of the Method Test Prep team, and as always I enjoyed making new friends and renewing old acquaintances during my four days in the Buckeye State. 

Going into the conference, two of the sessions I looked forward to most were the separate presentations from David Coleman and Marten Roorda, respectively the chief executives of the College Board (owners of the SAT) and the ACT.  After so many changes, so much anxiety, and extensive confusion regarding the two tests, I thought that there would be great interest in hearing directly from these two leaders just what they thought of the current state of college admissions testing.  I've uploaded my notes from the session (typed as quickly as I could while the men were speaking) for your reading pleasure; what follows are some observations after having a few days to think about what I heard.

While many people doubtless wanted to see a heavyweight showdown with the two men on stage at the same time, it wasn't to be. David Coleman spoke on Thursday afternoon, and Marten Roorda spoke in the same room the next day. Coleman's session was formatted as a "Q&A", and Roorda's being more of a prepared speech. The room was gigantic, with hundreds of seats, a large screen and microphones scattered throughout the audience for questions. 

The first thing that was evident to me was how many empty seats there were for Coleman's session. At NACAC 2015 I was totally shut out of the one session I really wanted to see, which featured admissions data guru Jon Boeckenstedt of DePaul University--even the overflow crowd was too much for the fire marshal's taste. Fearing a similar situation, I arrived extra early for Coleman, but more than half of the seats were empty. Interestingly, this session was counter-programmed with another presentation by Boeckenstedt--perhaps that's where everyone was? Or it could be that people are frustrated by the poor communication from the College Board over the last year; as one of my friends said “I’ve left too many College Board presentations angry to want to go to this one”. That said, at least 300-400 people were present to hear from the usually quiet Mr. Coleman.

Coleman, who took over the reins of the College Board four years ago after leading the effort to promulgate the Common Core standards seemed to go into the session with a plan, and the plan was to admit responsibility early and often for the College Board's failures in implementing 2015's many changes. The first question set the tone: "So David, it hasn’t been a good year..." Coleman gave a great answer that was clearly well planned: "Thanks to all of you who do this hard work. Frankly, we made your work a lot harder last year and I'm sorry about that...This was not ok....When the College Board betrays your ability to help kids it's a harm. It has real impact on people's lives." 

I thought that was a strong response, but the audience was unmoved--in fact a noteworthy phenomenon throughout Coleman's talk was the many times that he said things that in almost any other setting should have received applause but in this case were met with silence. For instance, see some of the answers and imagine how badly the College Board must have burned people for all of these to be met with comparative silence:

Q: Why no fee waivers for the CSS Profile (an extra, fee-based tool some colleges use for financial aid decisions)? "It's not fair. But I can announce that all students who qualify will automatically get CSS Profile waivers. It's wrong to keep asking families to say they are poor and to prove it for small amounts of money. We will do better. This is effective now."  This was a wonderful remark that showed Coleman's fundamental humanity, and it's a shame that the audience treated it so skeptically.
Q. Regarding the ACT's disavowal of the concordance tables between the new SAT, old SAT and ACT, how should we counsel our kids? "Concordance is necessary, but a necessary evil....I have good news for you. We and ACT have come to an agreement, and we will work together with all deliberate speed to have a new concordance for 2018.”  I'm not sure if anyone else noticed the quote from the slightly less famous Brown v. Board of Education II opinion, but to me "all deliberate speed" is the classic example of an oxymoron; I can only hope this time it works better than it did in the fifties.
Q. He was asked if he'd read an article in The Atlantic about school counselors. His response should have been a great example of solidarity with the audience, but it seemed to ring hollow: “Half of what we do is to help students grow and show their work to get ready for college. The other half is to propel kids to opportunities. If we leave futures up to chance, we have lost...When we get our problems under control, I want to become a central spokesman for the role of counseling."

With about a half hour left in the session, we were told that Coleman would take 15 minutes of questions. Quite a few people lined up at the microphones. At the end of 15 minutes, after we were told the session was over, Coleman (magnanimously?) agreed to another 15 minutes. Whether this was staged or just simple confusion I can't say. The questions from the audience were a bit more pointed and the responses generated a little bit of news, and demonstrated a bit more evasion than in the prior examples.

One very abrasive questioner, for instance, expressed her frustration with the process to grant students with disabilities accommodations (extra time, scribes, readers, etc.); "why does it take so frigging long?  It's ridiculous! What the hell?!"  Coleman was calm and empathetic, saying "you're right, by the end of the year we will announce substantive and significant simplifications of the appeal process".  He also noted that accommodations for English Language Learners will be available soon, at least for the School Day Testing sites. That was good to hear, and somewhat newsworthy. Along the same lines, James Murphy of the Princeton Review (who wrote the Atlantic article mentioned above) asked when the SAT Subject tests will go to 4 choices per question with no guessing penalty (like the revise SAT) if it is so much better. Coleman said that was a "good point. The future of the subject tests is non-trivial" to the College Board, and he speculated that they might be redundant due to Advanced Placement tests. 

The possible elimination of the subject tests is, to me, quite newsworthy. According to Adam Ingersoll of Compass Prep, currently very few (you can count them on one hand) schools explicitly require these tests (down from nearly 100 earlier in the decade), though many "recommend" them, which serves only to enrich the College Board, in my opinion. Dropping these tests from the to do lists of over-burdened, over-tested and over-stressed high schoolers would be a good idea, but not if the idea is to replace them with Advanced Placement tests, since not every student has access to AP curricula at their schools. 

Coleman was more evasive on the topic of standardized test bias. An independent consultant from South Florida asked about the latest article from Reuters about SAT and ACT problems that says that the designers of the new SAT knew in advance that there was a racial bias in the new math questions. The article is worth a read, and it notes that the vocabulary in the much wordier math questions on the new test may cause problems for racial minorities, English language learners and economically disadvantaged students. Coleman only talked about the second group: "We have found that ELL students who might have trouble with wordier questions have no measurable problem completing the test. We will do everything we can to simplify the math section. Superfluous words are superfluous. But we will not go back to useless math questions. We will have elegant, brief, easily accessible math questions."  I was disappointed that he didn't take the chance to give a forceful defense of why the new SAT fixes the racial biases in the old test. Maybe it's because he can't?

The final question that was posed seemed to be an outgrowth of the writing of my friend Jim Jump. Coleman was asked why there is no "ethical, moral or philosophical dimension" to standardized testing. He replied by saying that the exam isn't an ethics test, but that "the ethics of admission is a core issue of our time". He said that College Board research (you know what I think of that) shows that devotion to just one activity correlates most directly to future success. He thinks that the College Board is "partly culpable" in the "activities arms race" and wondered if the Common Application would be better off listing only three slots for extra-curricular activities instead of 10.


After Coleman's talk, speculation was rampant about what kind of approach Marten Roorda would take. Coleman seemed SO contrite and empathetic that some wondered how the ACT boss would approach the recent failures and confusions his company had perpetrated. I arrived early again, but definitely didn't have to rush; there were less than 100 people in the very large room at the outset of the event, and as it went on people kept leaving in frustration, to the point that I counted 71 people at the end.  

Marten Roorda took over the helm of the ACT in 2015 after previously running one of Europe's largest testing firms in his native Netherlands. His presentation struck this former public speaking teacher as one of the weakest I've ever seen. Roorda has a deep, soothing voice with an accent that isn't hard to understand, but that definitely takes concentration to fully understand. He employed a PowerPoint slide show, but the text was far too small for me to read in my seat at the rear of the room. Worst of all, Roorda made next to no eye contact and simply read a speech. Joyce Smith, the CEO of NACAC introduced the speaker and tried to set the tone: "It's Marten's first NACAC, so please be gentle to him" she implored. Unfortunately, he does not seem to have done any research into NACAC before coming, as his speech ignored the fact that the audience was made up of people who work with students and families who want to go to college. Instead, he focused on the growth of the ACT's market share, and the development of even more tests.

"You don't know about me," he began "but if you know anything about ACT, you know we like numbers. Let me tell you a new number....64%. That is the percentage of 2016 seniors who took the ACT. For the 12th straight year an increase in users, and for the 5th straight year we are the most popular test."

That seemed like an interesting start. He said that the ACT was created in 1958 not as an aptitude test (a dig at what the A used to stand for in SAT) but as one to help with placement. "To include, not exclude". Sadly, he didn't really return to this theme again. He spent the next 20 minutes describing companies that ACT has recently purchased and spun off into the new "ACT Assessment Technologies", recent experts in psychometrics that he has hired as part of his goal to "build a team of world-class scientists", and new tests that the ACT will be rolling out soon. Over a dozen people walked out during this session, one grumbling under her breath "I've never had a bigger waste of time in my life". 

Roorda did take questions at the end, and while he demonstrated more empathy in this part of the program, it may have been a case of too little, too late. When a teacher from a Native American school in Washington described her students driving 90 miles to a test center only to have their (ACT approved) calculators disqualified by the proctor, Roorda was genuinely disturbed and promised that his team would look into the situation.  On the other hand, when a college counselor from New Hampshire asked a follow up question about increasing the number of test centers so rural students wouldn't have to travel so far, he was told "America is a big place, we have 6 to 7 thousand test centers across the country and more centers will increase costs. We want to keep prices lower. But if we get a signal that in an area there is too much travel we could look at [it]. Students should communicate with us about this." I can’t imagine how much more costly it could be to have more schools host the ACT, and if it makes life easier for the test takers, it seems desirable, but what do I know? 

While keeping costs lower may be a concern, when he was asked if the ASPIRE and PreACT tests are "a price grab", all he said was "the ASPIRE and PreACT are totally different and not comparable" but implied that schools should administer both to students (along with a new set of assessments that start as early as 3rd grade). 

Roorda may not be a cold technocrat, but it was definitely how he came across to the audience. Especially in contrast with Coleman's almost uncomfortable levels of empathy, Roorda seemed to be distant and unconcerned with nuance. I'll give an example. When Coleman was asked about the growth of "test optional" colleges and universities, his answer was warm, human and thoughtful: 

"I don't want to seem to disparage schools that choose to be test optional. I understand the “humanity” to not force kids to take a test that they won’t do well on. But the SAT today measures the few things that are impossible to catch up on in college if you don’t know them (literacy, reading, certain math). It is very rare for a remedial student to catch up in college. Less than 1 of 10 without basic math can do college chemistry. We can make the test optional, but don’t make the skill assessment optional."

That's a good answer. Roorda merely said "We think colleges are missing an opportunity by going test optional. More, objective information is good and badly needed, both for schools and students. Grades may not translate into readiness." Considering that many colleges that make submission of standardized tests optional do so because they find a student's transcript to be the best predictor of college success, this seems to be a needless insult to the audience. Along the same lines, he also criticized grade inflation at the college and high school levels and predicted that the ACT score might someday serve as the proxy for "bright, engaged and aware" that a college degree "used to signal" but no longer does. 

One further question about test optional admissions came from Jay Rosner, another Princeton Review staffer. He asked "regarding your statement that 'more information is better', more information that shows the same disparities in race and economics isn't more useful, is it?" Roorda's answer was, if not surprising coming from a researcher, definitely jarring to my ears:
"I feel strongly about this. We must be thankful that a test can expose what is wrong with society. We are not trying to kill the messenger. Standardized tests should not be blamed, we should keep highlighting gaps. It is statistically not sound to say that our tests are biased." 
He's right that exposing societal ills is beneficial, but millions of students don't take the ACT to diagnose America's racial and economic problems, they take them to go to college (or, increasingly, as a measure of their public high school's success in preparing students for "college and careers"). If the makers of the ACT are aware of disparities among different groups in the population, why don't they try to equalize for that in their tests?


I was glad to be able to attend these sessions. I felt that I learned a lot about the state of standardized testing, and while neither Coleman nor Roorda chose to focus much on what Coleman called the "bloodsport" between SAT and ACT, it was pretty clear to me that these very large companies, while "non-profit" for tax purposes, have a great economic imperative to increase sales and market share at the expense of the other. Coleman said "We made the new SAT to be much better than anything else. I urge you to take a fresh look at the SAT", while Roorda noted that the ACT gives a specific STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) score, and that "we don't sell different subject tests like some others".  I hope that the leaders of the College Board and the ACT will continue to make themselves available to questions, comments and suggestions from the college admissions counseling community to make sure that they keep refining their products so that they best serve the students who spend so much time, effort and money on college admissions tests.