Tuesday, December 4, 2018

College Board: Help Us Market Our Product

Right down to its name, which sounds like some sort of non-profit official education oversight panel, the College Board has a history of marketing its product while trying not to look like a company whose life depends on its ability to sell a product.

In recent years, the market has tightened up, what with the ACT competing effectively and some schools dropping the SAT as an entrance requirement entirely. Plus the research that keeps confirming that the SAT is not the best way to predict college success. The conventional wisdom of my youth (everybody takes the SAT if they want to go to college, because, you know, you just do) has been steadily eroding.

But the College Board has scored some real coups. They managed to con some states into using the SAT as a graduation exam. This is crazy-pants, as the test was not remotely designed to determine if someone is ready to graduate from high school, but the College Board people aren't going to quibble because ka-ching! The test I magical! It measures anything and everything! Have your students take it to determine their personality and shoe size! Ka-ching! They also hired David Coleman as their chief, fresh off his stint as co-creator of the Common Core, for some reason.

Meanwhile, the College Board has developed an entire "suite" of tests, so that students can just keep taking versions of the SAT all the time. And in perhaps the most impressive coup of all, they have managed to convince many states that the use off their other major product-- the AP test, accompanied why the AP class-- is a measure of school quality. Other corporations are so jealous. Imagine if your state decreed that school rankings should count how many people drive Ford's to school, or that school performance scores could get a bump by serving Tyson chicken products in the cafeteria. Ka-ching!

But none of this means that the marketing minds at the College Board are going to rest. For one, they've completely dropped the bogus line about the "new" SAT and how it was impervious to test prep. Now the College Board markets test prep, some in conjunction with Khan Academy. Some of this is just cross-self-marketing. Organize a practice test. Take the Baby SAT's and they will tell you which AP courses you should be asking your school to offer. Much of the test prep stuff is free, because what they'd really like to do is build brand awareness, like Coke and Pepsi, who give away scoreboards and other equipment emblazoned with their logo just so that people will always think of their brand name. If the College Board can just keep its brands out there, then it increases the odds that people will automatically associate excellent students smartitude with AP and going to college with SAT.

Still, marketeers also need to work at keeping the revenue stream robust, so here's a cool idea that keeps popping up on my tweety feed: SAT School Day! See, historically, mostly, students take the test on a Saturday or a summer day. But if the school would just cancel classes for a day so that every junior could take the SAT in school-- well, the College Board already knows this works. From the College Board's ad copy:

“Our SAT participation increased from 35% on a Saturday to 92% on a school day.”
—Brenda Carter, Advanced Academics High School Coordinator, Fort Worth ISD, Fort Worth, TX

SAT School Day lets schools, districts, and states offer the SAT to juniors and seniors in school, on a weekday, expanding access to a globally recognized college admission test that's accepted at all U.S. colleges.

Expanding access? The biggest block to access is the hefty fee for taking the test. It's hard to know how much of the increase in test-takers is a function of "I just can't get to a testing site on a Saturday" and how much is a function of "I get out of a day of classes just to take the test? Sweet!" Either way, the College Board gets a revenue boost by having the school market its product. And don't forget-- this is double dipping for the College Board which makes money on the front end selling the test and makes money on the back end selling the data it collects.

Look, there's legitimate conversation to be had about how making the test a more visible part of school life fosters a culture of college attendance (and another one to be had about how good an idea that would be). And it's not like the College Board collects the money and gives students pet rocks wrapped in Cheez Whiz in return: there is some bit of utility in the purchase of this product.

But there is something not-quite-okay about enlisting public schools as marketing arms of the College Board. It's clever on the College Board's part, but it's an abdication of responsibility for the school, which has an obligation to think two or three times before allowing its charges to become captive customers. SAT School Day is a great idea-- for the College Board. Absent any other reforms or sources of money, it's not clear that "expanding access" to the SAT expands access to college, but it certainly helps the company move more profit and generate more income, while high school guidance departments market their product at no cost to the company. Ka-ching.


  1. How about the students doing so well on an SAT last summer, that rather then score a win, College Board curved the scores downward?

  2. It's not just the SAT. Utah's high schools get out for a full day for every junior to take the ACT. I wouldn't be surprised if other states do that, too.

  3. The College Board also saves money by not having to pay proctors if schools have teachers give the tests during the school day. Follow the money.

  4. The College Board also saves money by not having to pay proctors if schools have teachers give the tests during the school day. Follow the money.