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Coffee with College Board President Caperton

Gaston Caperton was the governor of West Virginia. I bet he gets tougher questions now as president of the College Board, the New York nonprofit responsible for the SAT test and Advanced Placement exams.

Everybody in higher education has an opinion about the SAT. Some people think colleges give too much weight to what is, in the end, a half-day test that takes a snapshot of a high school student's reading and math skills and general cleverness. Some believe the test favors the rich, who can afford to take it again and again and raise their scores. Some say it penalizes black and Hispanic students, who come from a different cultural context than middle-class whites.


AP is, if anything, an even hotter topic these days. Once the province of a small group of overworked students at the top schools, AP has undergone a vast democratization in the past decade. The program has exploded in size, yielding large numbers of schools that give one or more tests to each graduating senior. A new generation of critics contend the the test has set off an AP arms race, with schools pushing ill-prepared students into watered-down classes and ultimately diminishing the brand. The Challenge Index, a measure of AP participation created by our own Jay Mathews, sometimes gets caught in the crossfire.

(Full disclosure: The Washington Post owns Kaplan, a player in the test-preparation industry.)

Here is a brief Q and A, edited gently for space. I will paraphrase my meandering questions.

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Q: What was your own experience with the SAT?

A: I'm dyslexic. I couldn't read until the fourth grade. If you're dyslexic, you don't do very well on tests. My SAT scores were very average. I think that is what makes me recognize the importance of the admission process in the United States. The testing is only part of the admission process. What their grades are, what their activities are, is oftentimes as important as their SAT score. I believe in the SAT scores, because you have to have some objective measurement, and I think the SAT does that in some kind of objective way.

Q: We have reported on a trend in the Washington suburbs toward students taking the SAT and rival ACT once each, rather than take the SAT twice, as they might have done in the past. What do you think of it?

A: I think that was more of a trend a few years ago than a trend today. We know that a student who takes the SAT twice does better the second time they take it. It's really more to their advantage to take the SAT twice and have a better chance at getting a good score.

Q: Did your own children study for the SAT? Did you?

A: I have a daughter who's graduating from high school this year. I understand this experience of being an AP student and taking the SAT better than I ever understood it before. She just took it one time. She got a good score. I didn't recommend she take it a second time once I felt she had gotten a score that reflected well her capabilities. I can tell you, when I took the SAT, you went down on a Saturday and you just took it. My [older] children, as I remember, took a practice test, just so they got used to how long it was and what it was like, but they didn't do anything beyond that.

Q: If AP became the standard for rigor at every high school in the country, would that be a good thing?

A: I think it would be wonderful if every school in the United States offered quality AP teachers and courses. We know, we can prove, that schools that have great AP programs have more students prepared to go to college and be successful. The most important work I've done since I've been at the College Board is to democratize the AP program. Schools now give all students the PSAT in the 10th grade, and [use the results to] identify students who have the capacity to do AP work. The first place we really did that was Florida, where we've tripled the number of Hispanics and doubled the number of African-Americans taking the AP. We're so proud of that.

Q: Do colleges give the SAT appropriate weight?

A: My sense is it's used in most places in a very appropriate way. And an appopriate way to me is, they know from their own records the SAT scores that make up their student body. They know what the range is. And the AP today is almost equally important, as a second check. They can see if the child has taken a college-level course, and what kind of grade they've gotten in it. . . An A means very different things in different classrooms in different schools. The AP and SAT are clearly objective measures.

Q: What do you think of AP programs where relatively small shares of students take the end-of-course test?

A: I don't think you'd want to have a doctor or lawyer who hasn't taken an exam that qualifies them. And I think in the same way, an AP course that doesn't have someone take the qualifying examination doesn't really challenge that performance. It's no different than why you give students grades in school. If you want to do away with AP scores, why don't you just do away with grades altogether?

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By Daniel de Vise  |  May 12, 2010; 1:13 PM ET
Categories:  Access , Admissions , Pedagogy  | Tags: Advanced Placement, Challenge Index, College Board, Gaston Caperton, SAT  
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As a college planner and test prep coach, I am impressed with the comments made by the president of the College Board. He seems like a reasonable man. We need more individuals in the world of education to bring some sanity to the SAT, ACT, AP and college admissions.

Susie Watts
Denver, Colorado

Posted by: collegedirection | May 13, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

College Board must be the richest nonprofit out there. They have a total monopoly on the market, and I've heard rumors that they're working toward offering high school curriculum that would be adopted by whole school districts. There's a growing movement for colleges to go "SAT optional" for admissions, but when you dig deeper you find out those colleges still want their applicants to submit SAT scores for placement purposes. Any way you slice it, the whole system seems to revolve around these tests, and it doesn't seem like students or families have much choice in the matter.

Posted by: dawn-wise | May 14, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

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