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Testing the limits

The College Board’s standardized—and heavily politicized—exams have uncommon influence on curriculum in even Christian schools, but alternatives may be coming


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Testing the limits
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Who was more important in the development of America: (a) Benjamin Franklin or (b) Harvey Milk?

If you chose printer and statesman Benjamin Franklin, who helped draft the Declaration of Independence and now has his face on $100 bills, you are right. But if you want to do well on the new Advanced Placement (AP) examination in American history, you’d better know about homosexual activist Harvey Milk, too.

The College Board, the massive nonprofit organization responsible for the Advanced Placement Exam as well as the SAT and PSAT tests, is in a multiyear process of revising the 37 AP tests. So far it has been a rocky road, with conservative and Christian educators saying the College Board is creating a left-leaning national curriculum for all children—whether they are public, private, or homeschooled.

“The College Board is turning itself into a national school board,” said Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “The current controversy is not just about the U.S. history exam, as important as that is. It’s about who is in charge of teaching our children.”

To understand fully what Kurtz means, another kind of history lesson is in order: the history of the College Board itself.

In 1899 several elite educational institutions—three college prep schools and 12 leading colleges—formed the College Entrance Examination Board, or CEEB, still the formal name of the organization. The organization planned to “adopt and publish a statement of the ground which should be covered [in history and 10 other fields] and a plan of examination suitable as a test for admission to college.”

The College Board first administered the SAT, then called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, in 1926. The Advanced Placement program began in 1955. Both programs were geared toward top students headed for the top schools, but as Pell grants and the G.I. Bill made college accessible to the middle class, the number of high-school students taking the SAT and AP tests exploded.

Today, more than 2,600 colleges—including most Christian colleges—offer credit to students who perform well on the AP exams. More than 2 million students took at least one AP exam in 2013. The College Board’s revenue now tops $800 million per year, and its president in 2013, Gaston Caperton, made more than $1.8 million in salary and other compensation. (The annual salary of the new president, David Coleman, is $690,000.)

“The College Board is a de facto monopoly,” said Kurtz. “It sets the agenda, and schools have little choice but to comply.” Part of its agenda-setting is through “frameworks” that give teachers guidance on what to teach so their students will do well on the AP exam. These frameworks listed recommended textbooks and topics the teachers should cover. One AP teacher who also grades AP exams explained that she did not have to teach from a recommended textbook, “but if we don’t use one of the recommended texts, our students are at a disadvantage.”

The teacher—WORLD granted her anonymity because otherwise she could lose her AP exam-grading job—said recommended textbooks often have problems. For example, A History of Western Society devotes less space to John Calvin or Martin Luther than to homosexuality and acceptance of sexual orientation, which it regards as a mark of civilization’s progress. Feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s critique of marriage—she called marriage “unjust” and “undesirable”—gets a full two pages, about as much as the book devotes to the World War II Pacific theater. The book briefly mentions Pope John Paul II once and Alexander Solzhenitsyn twice.

The AP teacher/grader noted that experienced teachers can overcome omissions and some bias by bringing additional material and perspectives into the classroom, but “in AP courses you barely have enough time to cover what you need to.” That means adding material means not covering what’s likely to be on the test itself, and that “will almost certainly put your students at a disadvantage at test time.”

THE PROBLEMS WITH AP TESTS BECAME PROMINENT WHEN the College Board revised the U.S. history exam in 2014. Stanley Kurtz was among many conservative critics who said the College Board “politicized” U.S. history, “demoted” the founders, and downplayed American exceptionalism. In June the National Association of Scholars (NAS) posted an open letter to the College Board signed by dozens of historians, including professors at Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and Princeton. The letter said the 2014 framework represented “a grave new risk” to the study of America’s past.

The credibility of the critics, and the specificity of their criticism, got the attention of the College Board. On July 31, the College Board retreated from the 2014 framework and issued a new document that it said was “clearer and more balanced.” Conservative critics agreed—to a point. NAS President Peter Wood said, “It’s definitely better than 2014,” and he appreciated the College Board “taking the position that it has something to learn from its critics.” But, he added, the revisions are “still deeply hostile to American ideals including the importance of religion in our national life.”

Stanley Kurtz, unconvinced, said “the only real solution to this problem is more choice. It is not safe nor proper for the College Board to be in complete control of this process.”

Kurtz noted that the new president of the College Board, David Coleman, was the chief architect of the Obama Administration’s Common Core curriculum, and said Coleman’s move from the Gates Foundation–funded Student Achievement Partners to the presidency of the College Board is “an opportunity for him to get control of the rest of the high-school curriculum in this country.”

THE CALL FOR COMPETITION—“MORE CHOICE”—IN THE education marketplace is finding receptive ears, but barriers to entry are daunting. The only real competition to the SAT is the ACT: Introduced in 1959, only in the 1980s did it make serious inroads into SAT’s hegemony. Since 2011, though, more students take the ACT each year than the SAT. The ACT does better in the Midwest and the South, while the SAT is still stronger on the East and West coasts. ACT, Inc., has so far steered clear of competing with the AP test.

Any newcomer into the market would have to contend with long-standing political and financial relationships both the SAT and the ACT organizations have with the nation’s education establishment: For example, former Secretary of Education Richard Riley sits on the ACT’s board. Cozy relationships have gained the College Board $40 million in federal subsidies. Since most educational funding comes at the state and local levels, it’s likely subsidies there are even greater.

College coziness with the existing tests is one more barrier to entry, but some colleges—especially Christian ones—seem fed up with standardized tests. The selective George Washington University said in late July it would no longer require applicants to submit test scores.

The entrepreneurial homeschool community—now about 2 million strong in the United States—has devised some AP, SAT, and ACT work-arounds. CollegePlus, a division of the for-profit company Lumerit, allows homeschoolers to take college courses online. The credits they accumulate transfer readily to about a dozen accredited partner Christian colleges. About 10,000 students have earned from a few up to 90 credit hours through CollegePlus since 2004.

One organization, Vector ARC, is preparing to test the first real alternative to the SAT and ACT to come along in a half-century. The organization is offering free of charge its test to about 2,500 students who have already taken either the SAT or the ACT: The goal will be to create norms that allow colleges to compare the Vector ARC scores to the more familiar tests. Tennessee’s Bryan College will be one of the beta sites.

Vector ARC has an uphill fight, but discontent has grown since last August, when the Republican National Committee passed a resolution condemning the AP History standards as “radically revisionist.” Common Core likely will be an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, and that will shine more light on David Coleman, Common Core’s architect and the College Board’s president. Stanley Kurtz says the battle “is just beginning.”

Public isn’t free

Washington, D.C., wants two of its police officers to cough up more than $224,000 in back tuition and penalties for sending their three children to high-demand public schools in the district while allegedly living in Maryland.

School districts regularly hire enrollment fraud investigators, who pursue tips from parents and school staff. Sometimes these investigators follow kids home, and even go inside to see if bedrooms and other personal items indicate the children really live within their assigned enrollment zone, said Fred Lewis, a D.C. Public Schools spokesman. Not only do people who live outside a district not pay property taxes for its schools, their children take seats residents may want.

The D.C. City Council asked the schools to crack down on enrollment fraud when parents began complaining about difficulties getting their children into sought-after preschool, athletics, and academic programs, Lewis said. Not every public school offers these, and D.C. schools are otherwise less attractive than most: Half of D.C. fourth-graders cannot read, compared to a third of fourth-graders nationwide. Parents with children on waiting lists grow suspicious when they see other parents pick up children in cars bearing out-of-state license plates.

While U.S. schools can prosecute citizens for enrollment fraud, they can’t prosecute noncitizens. A 1982 Supreme Court ruling requires public schools to educate illegal immigrants. The Pew Research Center estimates 4,065 undocumented children live in Washington, D.C. Taxpayers pay approximately $29,000 per year for each child enrolled in D.C. Public Schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. —Joy Pullmann

Moving for choice

Holland Hines’ family moved from Michigan to Arizona after spending three years wrestling with the state legislature, insurance companies, and school system attempting to get her son, Elias, schooling that improved his autism.

“There’s nothing worse than watching your child suffer and not being able to do anything about it,” the mother of two said. Before they moved, her family contracted more than $70,000 in debt to pay for therapy they could not get local schools to provide. Now, at age 10, Elias uses an education savings account (ESA) to help pay for different classes at two private schools, a tutor, a music therapist, a piano instructor, and gymnastics class.

ESAs are a brand-new kind of school choice that put state education funds into an audited account parents can tap to pay for not just school tuition but also curriculum, tutors, individual classes, testing, and education-related transportation. Nevada recently enacted the nation’s first ESA open to all public-school students. Others target special-needs children: Arizona’s program began in 2011, Florida followed in 2014, then Mississippi and Tennessee in 2015.

In Nevada, each nondisabled child enrolled will receive approximately $5,100 each year once the program opens in 2016. The amount states send to special-needs children in these programs varies by the severity of each child’s disabilities.

In Arizona, parents must have the state Department of Education preapprove instructors they want to hire using their ESA, which requires a pile of paperwork, Hines said. Arranging Elias’ various instructors and therapists and driving him to classes also occupies a great deal of Hines’ time, but the change it has brought to him and the whole family has made that complication worth it, she said.

“When I wake up and realize every day that the ESAs are still here … it’s like Christmas morning,” she said. “I can really get up and design my child’s education. I can hire people that want to work with my child, and I’m getting help. It’s not half as much work as spinning your wheels in another state and fighting the insurance system, the legislature, the Medicaid process, and the school system.”—Joy Pullmann


Warren Cole Smith

Warren is the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. He previously served as WORLD’s vice president and associate publisher. He currently serves as president of MinistryWatch and has written or co-written several books, including Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan To Change the World Through Everyday People. Warren resides in Charlotte, N.C.

@WarrenColeSmith

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