28 August 2016

The College Board informant returns (and the College Board goes after him)

This past June, Manuel Alfaro, a former Executive Director of Test Design and Development at the College Board, wrote a stunning series of tell-all posts on LinkedIn in which he detailed the numerous problems plaguing the redesigned SAT as well as the College Board’s attempts to alternately ignore and cover up those problems.

For several weeks, Alfaro posted nearly every day, each time revealing more disturbing details about the College Board’s bumbling ineptitude and equally clumsy attempts to hide it. 

Then, after 16 posts, he disappeared. 

I wrote about Alfaro’s major revelations here and here, so I’m not going to repeat them in this post; if you’d like to read the full series for yourself, you can do so via Alfaro’s LinkedIn page.

Given the accusations, it wasn’t hard to speculate about why Alfaro had gone silent so abruptly: presumably, the College Board’s team of legal vultures had either paid him off or threatened to make his life miserable if he didn’t keep his mouth shut. 

More than one commenter who appeared to have some personal familiarity with Alfaro pointed out that he isn’t the type of person to back down easily. 

As it turns out, both sides were right.

Alfaro has indeed returned, with two new posts (see here and here) revealing yet more lurid details about the College Board’s exploits. I strongly encourage you to read them. 

Unsurprisingly, the College Board has also come after him: Alfaro’s home was apparently raided by the FBI as a result of accusations that he was the person who released hundreds of test items to Reuters. But he also deliberately refrained from posting until after the April (school-day) and May SATs were released.

Why?

Because, he asserts, the administered test did not match the specifications laid out for the redesigned SAT, leaving a significant percentage of test-takers unable to finish the exam. Again, he claims, top College Board officials were aware of the problem but took no steps to rectify it prior to administration.

According to Alfaro, the extraordinary delay in releasing the tests was most likely due to the College Board’s need to rewrite the affected items, post-administration, to make them conform to the specifications. (Perhaps this what one College Board official meant when he stated that the delay was the result of a problem with the “metadata.”)

He therefore waited to begin posting until after the exams had been released in order to see whether — or rather, how and to what extent — the College Board had doctored them.  

So the issue is not only that the College Board has released an insufficient number of full-length exams; it is that even the exams that have been released may not be representative of the real test.  

Alfaro also states that in order to beat out the ACT for the Colorado state testing contract, the College Board spuriously claimed that the new exam tested scientific reasoning by counting every question that referred to a scientific topic — regardless of whether the question actually tested science in any way. 

I’m not sure what’s more disturbing: that the College Board actually argued that rSAT tested science even though it clearly does no such thing, or that Colorado school officials actually bought the College Board’s claims (as did schools officials in Illinois, Michigan, and Connecticut). After all, the only thing they needed to do was spend five minutes looking at the test

I think the that the major takeaway from all this is that the College Board is operating on the very cynical but all too often valid assumption that if one proclaims that something is true loudly and often enough, it ceases to be relevant whether that thing is actually true.

Thus, it is not necessary for the new SAT to actually require students to use evidence (the way the old SAT essay did, for example) — it is merely sufficient to call things “evidence-based.” Likewise, the College Board need only indignantly proclaim its commitment to “transparency,” regardless of whether there is evidence to suggest that such thing exists in any meaningful way.  

Most people — even those in charge of education for hundreds of thousands of students — will not bother to question important-sounding executives in suits who come bearing talking points about equity and slick PowerPoint presentations.

Provided that things are spun correctly and the necessary talking points are adhered to strictly enough, almost any absurdity can be made to sound reasonable. (Gee, who’d have thought that bringing in a McKinsey consultant would result in THAT?! Or maybe that was precisely the point.)

Such is the beauty of a post-fact world.

This isn’t exactly news at this point, but it bears repeating. In politics, enough people are clued into reality to spark a good deal of pushback after a certain threshold of ridiculousness is reached. (I was worried for a while that this wouldn’t be the case, but I was proven wrong). In education, however, people tend to be less informed about the details, and thus the issues are considerably easier to obscure.   

What makes the game the College Board is playing particularly dangerous is that it distorts key terms in the lexicon of education itself (critical thinking, evidence, higher-order thinking) so that they come to mean something far different, or even the opposite, of what they are traditionally understood to mean. Words become unmoored from their definitions.

And if any of this is questioned, the response is always along the lines of “it’s complicated.” Obfuscation is thus recast as nuance.

The result is an exercise in doublespeak in which the College Board says one thing and the public understands another. (“Isn’t it wonderful that students have to use evidence – that will really help them develop those higher-order thinking skills!”)

An organization that has a fundamental responsibility to help students learn to use language correctly is instead teaching a far different lesson, namely the importance of jargon and spin. 

As I’ve said before, from a sociological perspective it is utterly fascinating to watch this phenomenon play out in real time, but it is also terrifying to witness the ease with which people can be induced to ignore what is under their noses and to excuse the propagation of blatant falsehoods. (“I mean, everybody knows that guessing penalty doesn’t really mean there’s a penalty for guessing. It’s just called that.”) 

So is this ultimately the goal: to teach students to repeat a series of platitudes and buzz words, without any regard for their underlying meanings? I really am beginning to think this is the case. 

Critical thinking, for example, is often touted as the most important thing for students to develop, but people who exhibit a nuanced understanding of topics are typically derided as “wonks.” Witness the way the media bemoans Donald Trump’s lack of specifics but then turns around and sneers at Hillary Clinton for having the nerve to discuss her policies in detail, of all things. 

From what I’ve observed, the present goal of the education system seems to be to get students to about a seventh- or eighth-grade level very quickly and then more or less leave them there; real advanced work is for nerds. (And real advanced STEM work is for robotic Asian nerds — yes, there is a racially tinged component here.)  

I maintain that most people who extol the virtues of critical thinking would not much like the real thing if they saw it. It just involves too much work and too many facts. And worse, it’s not always fun

To be sure, this type of anti-intellectualism has been a consistent feature of American life since the nineteenth century, and granted I’m not an expert, but I’m not quite sure whether it has ever been embraced to quite this extent by educators themselves. 

The question is, have things progressed so far that the people who run the education system are incapable of noticing these things? And when people do point them out, will they have any effect? 

4 Responses

  1. AJ

    Great reporting, thanks for staying on top of this.

    BTW have you looked at the “new” test #5? Question #29 on the Writing – when I took the test I thought it had to be a typo and spent 5 minutes looking for an answer that read straight through without a comma – why would there be a comma after “riders” in answer choice C (the correct answer according to them)?

    1. admin

      I took a look, and I actually think it could go either way with the comma. The comma just emphasizes that the definition of “free riders” is subordinate to the fact that the free riders are present.

Leave a Reply