A couple of weeks ago, I posted a guest commentary entitled “For What It’s Worth,” detailing the College Board’s attempt not simply to recapture market share from the ACT but to marginalize that company completely. I’m planning to write a fuller response to the post another time; for now, however, I’d like to focus on one point that was lurking between in the original article but that I think could stand to be made more explicit. It’s pretty apparent that the College Board is competing very hard to reestablish its traditional dominance in the testing market – that’s been clear for a while now – but what’s less apparent is that it may not be a fair fight.

I want to take a closer look at the three states that the College Board has managed to wrest away from the ACT: Michigan, Illinois, and Colorado. All three of these states had fairly longstanding relationships with the ACT, and the announcements that they would be switching to the SAT came abruptly and caught a lot of people off guard. Unsurprisingly, they’ve also engendered a fair amount of pushback.

The fact that the College Board consistently underbid the ACT is entirely unsurprising. Unlike ACT, Inc., the College Board receives enormous amounts of revenue from the AP program: over $750 million a year. (In contrast, the ACT takes in only about $300 million per year.) With that kind of money, the College Board can afford to withstand some losses.

When you look at the College Board vs. ACT, Inc. numbers in the state-test bidding market, though, an interesting non-pattern emerges. In fact, the amounts by which the College Board underbid the ACT in Illinois, Colorado, and Michigan varied wildly.

The bids were as follows:

Illinois: SAT – $14.3 million, ACT – $15.67 million; underbid by $1.37 million

Colorado: SAT $14.8 million, ACT – $23.4 million; underbid by $6.6 million

Michigan: SAT – $17.1 million, ACT – $32.5 million; underbid by $15.4 million

To emphasize: the College Board bid only $1.37 million less than ACT, Inc. in Illinois but over $15 million less in Michigan. That’s a pretty huge difference.

Even though the bids were submitted confidentially, the College Board presumably could have easily obtained information about the ACT’s current contracts in those states and tailored its proposals based on those figures.

But why the huge range then? Yes, it seems clear that the ACT is cheaper to administer in Illinois than in Michigan or Colorado, but for the College Board’s Illinois bid to be even remotely consistent with the other two, a figure more in the range of $8-10 million would be expected.

So the question remains: how was the College Board able to succeed with such a close bid in Illinois when a bid significantly lower than the ACT’s was necessary to win in Colorado, and an far lower bid was necessary to win in Michigan?

Thanks to densely populated Chicago and its suburbs, Illinois is a major prize; it seems unlikely that the College Board just didn’t care that much about winning that state.

A far more likely explanation is that David Coleman’s connections run deep in Illinois via the Grow Network, the company that Coleman and his CCSS buddy Jason Zimba founded to analyze test-data for schools and that was later purchased by McGraw Hill; the company worked for the Chicago public schools back when their chief executive was none other than former US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Given that background, it strikes me as entirely possible that the College Board was advised that it only needed to provide a token underbid so that the switch to the SAT could be justified on financial grounds.

In contrast, the College Board’s ties to Michigan and Colorado weren’t nearly as entrenched – it was necessary to underbid by more than a token amount in order to wrest those states away from the ACT. Lucky for the College Board, it has hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from the AP program to cushion the blow.

In Michigan, however, there were serious questions about the fairness of the whole process. As Jed Applerouth of Applerouth Tutoring recently posted on his company’s blog

Everyone was shocked when Michigan, in the heart of ACT territory, dropped its 8-year relationship with the ACT and opted instead to give every junior a redesigned SAT. This decision resulted largely from an ambiguous request for proposal issued by Michigan’s Department of Education. The confusing RFP led the ACT, Inc. to submit a bid which incorporated the added expense of a graded essay per student, while the College Board submitted a bid without this substantial expense. The lower bid won the day. Despite howling protests by the ACT reps, the decision stood.

That seems like a rather large factor to have been overlooked. Why, one might ask, was the Michigan DOE not willing to at least reconsider its decision in light of that information?

In Colorado, things were even hairier. The announcement was made abruptly, right before Christmas break, and caught just about everyone off guard. Writing on Diane Ravitch’s blog, Colorado teacher Michael Mazenko offered this commentary:

In following the story [of Colorado’s switch to the SAT], I am particularly bothered by mention of the decision being made by “a selection committee” that no one I know following the issue has heard of. When Colorado passed HB1323 which required that the junior level test be put out to bid, there was no talk of a committee. Previous coverage and discussion of the subject made no mention of the committee. With no names of members, no one was available for questions and comment beyond CDE’s spokesman. Additionally, I am troubled by the connection to the PARCC test and implication that the decision is an attempt to force Colorado to remain tied to PARCC. Just a couple weeks ago, CDE interim head Eliot Asp and State Board of Education President Steve Durham implied that Colorado would leave PARCC after this spring’s test. Durham noted that a majority on the Board are “opposed to this test.” Yet, shortly after those comments, the state named Rich Crandell – of Arizona and Wyoming – as the sole choice to head CDE. That surprised many in state, for Crandell was instrumental in promoting CCSS and PARCC in Arizona. Prior to this week, most people expected that Colorado would stay with ACT and withdraw from PARCC to replace it with the ACT-Aspire for grades 3-10. Now, everything is up in the air, and schools will scramble to prepare for an entirely new test and system in just three months.

You can also click here to read the letter written jointly by a group of Colorado superintendents to the state’s Board of Education here. It clearly outlines the problems involved in the switch to the SAT, including the loss of longitudinal data, and raises serious questions about whether due process was followed. 

Colorado did agree to retain the ACT for this year’s juniors but will be switching to the SAT next year.

But why the rush? Why the lack of transparency?

Something about this scenario seems awfully familiar: this is basically how Common Core was put together – quickly and in secret, without input from or concern for the people most directly affected by the imposition of the standards, namely students and the teachers who have geared their curriculums toward helping students prepare for the ACT for the last decade-and-a-half.

Lest there be any remaining doubt, for all its talk about “creating opportunity,” the College Board has one purpose: to recapture market dominance and serve its shareholders, whose demands and goals may or may not be aligned with those of any of the other players involved in the testing game. That students will be required to serve as guinea pigs for what is effectively a brand new test of questionable authorship and validity is of no real concern. But it also seems as though the College Board may be receiving some help in these endeavors.