For those of you who haven’t been following the College Board’s recent exploits, the company is in the process of staging a massive, national attempt to recapture market share from the ACT. Traditionally, a number of states, primarily in the Midwest and South, have required the ACT for graduation. Over the past several months, however, several states known for their longstanding relationships with the ACT have abruptly – and unexpectedly – announced that they will be dropping the ACT and mandating the redesigned SAT. The following commentary was sent to me by a West Coast educator who has been closely following these developments.  

For What It’s Worth

On December 4, 2015 a 15-member evaluation committee met in Denver, Colorado to begin the process of awarding a 5-year state testing contract to either the ACT, Inc. or the College Board. After meeting three more times (December 10, 11, and 18th) the evaluation committee awarded the Colorado contract to the College Board on December 21, 2015. The committee’s meetings were not open to the public and the names of the committee members were not known until about two weeks later.

Once the committee’s decision became public, parents complained that it placed an unfair burden on juniors who had been preparing for the ACT. Over 150 school officials responded by sending a protest letter to Interim Education Commissioner Elliott Asp. The letter emphasized the problem faced by juniors and also noted that Colorado would be abandoning a test for which they had 15 years of data for a new test with no data.

The protest letter did not complain about the truncated and closed-door process used to evaluate the two admissions tests. It also failed to raise questions about the still unknown quality and reliability of the new SAT. Asp responded by reaching an agreement with the College Board and ACT, Inc. to allow juniors to take the ACT this spring. The state’s schools would then switch to the PSAT and SAT during the next school year.

 The decision in Colorado attracted virtually no national attention. It should have. In fact, what happened in Colorado is part of a largely unreported story that will affect millions of students and their families.

In 2012, the ACT replaced the SAT as America’s most used college admissions exam. By 2015, 1.9 million seniors took the ACT while 1.7 million took the SAT. Because the SAT figure includes over 200,000 international students, the actual US domestic market share difference between the ACT and the SAT was substantial and represented a real market reversal for the SAT.

Like any competitive business entity, the College Board refused to accept their loss of market share and reduced prestige. Led by their new president, David Coleman, the College Board launched an ambitious strategy to regain their traditional dominant position. The College Board hired key ACT officials and dramatically changed the SAT. The redesigned test eliminated the infamous “guessing” penalty, banished “arcane” vocabulary words, substantially reduced the number of geometry questions, copied the ACT’s Writing format, and made the essay optional. The SAT, first administered in 1926, jettisoned almost 90 years of theory and practice regarding test structure and content.

 Redesigning the SAT was just the first step in the College Board’s plan to supplant the ACT as America’s premier college admissions test. Many states award contracts to one of the testing giants to provide exams to all their public school students. The ACT achieved a significant portion of its numerical gains by dominating this large and lucrative segment of the market. Not any more.

In January 2015, Michigan stunned ACT, Inc. by awarding a 3-year contract to the College Board. The Michigan contract flipped a long-standing ACT cohort of 120,000 students to the SAT. The College Board’s winning bid was $15 million less than the ACT, Inc. proposal.

The Michigan decision should have alarmed ACT, Inc. Apparently it did not. Complacent ACT, Inc. executives failed to make needed changes in their test. For example, the ACT’s Reading Comprehension section is clearly inferior to the SAT’s section. The ACT gives students 35 minutes to read four straightforward passages and answer 40 questions. In contrast, the SAT gives students 65 minutes to read 5 relatively complex passages and answer 52 questions. At the same time, ACT, Inc. officials did not exploit weaknesses in the College Board’s SAT roll out. At the present time, the College Board does not have a single authentic SAT that has been given to real students under real testing conditions. Believe it or not, the public will not see a real SAT with a real scale until July 2016.

ACT, Inc. officials who may have believed that the Michigan decision was an aberration were wrong. In December 2015, the College Board shocked ACT, Inc. by winning contracts in Illinois and Colorado. Both states claimed that the SAT was better aligned with their state standards. Given that the two tests are very similar, this claim is very debatable. A more logical explanation is that the College Board underbid ACT, Inc. by $1.37 in Illinois and $8.5 million in Colorado. Ironically, both ACT, Inc. and the College Board are nominally “non-profits;” however, it is obvious that the College Board is not hesitating to use its enormous wealth to buy market share at the expense of ACT, Inc. The College Board is approximately three times larger than ACT, Inc. based on total revenue and can, if it so chooses, consistently and systematically underbid ACT, Inc.

So where does this leave us? To paraphrase the Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth,” there’s something happening here and what it is has become increasingly clear. The College Board is on the verge of regaining the SAT’s position as the nation’s dominant college admissions test. Its victories in Michigan, Illinois and Colorado combined with wins in New York City, Connecticut and New Hampshire will add over 600,000 students to the SAT’s enrollment total.

It seems that the College Board is not content to supplant the ACT exam; its true goal is to completely marginalize ACT, Inc. Given this significant development why aren’t journalists, educators, and writers speaking out and raising questions? For example, why aren’t business reporters pressing ACT, Inc. officials to explain how they will respond to what is clearly an existential threat to their company? ACT, Inc. is on the road to becoming the next “Radio Shack,” a quaint irrelevancy that will soon disappear.

From an educator’s perspective, why aren’t the nation’s geometry teachers asking why the SAT has abandoned its half-century commitment to geometry and has instead chosen to consign this time-honored subject to the dust bin of mathematics? Why aren’t the nation’s language arts teachers and writers asking why the College Board has abandoned its over half-century commitment to vocabulary and has instead blithely dismissed this time-honored subject as just a bunch of useless “arcane” words?

These and many other questions demand answers. Buffalo Springfield was right when they warned, “I think it’s time we stop.” We should all ask, “What’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down.”