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SAIS Interviews John Katzman On The New SAT

Monday, May 11, 2015  
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There’s no shortage of talking points or arguments surrounding high stakes testing and the admissions process in higher education. Experts agree that high stakes tests do not accurately measure a student’s skills. A growing number of colleges are also forgoing the use of student scores on high stakes tests as part of their college applications. However, experts also agree that some form of measurement is required. The College Board recently responded to the climate of criticism with another revamp of the SAT but critics still claim the measure is outdated.

SAIS recently sat down with John Katzman to talk about the SAT and the topic of testing in the United States. Katzman is an educational entrepreneur and activist. He is the founder and CEO of Noodle, and previously founded and led The Princeton Review and 2U. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Cracking the SAT and an outspoken critic of standardized testing. He sits on the boards of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the National Association of Independent Schools, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. 

SAIS: Why do you think standardized tests miss the mark in measuring what matters? 
Katzman: Well, let’s start with the notion that we should all learn the same thing and that we know what that is. I think it’s probably ridiculous just on the face of it, but let’s suspend our skepticism and dig a little further. We could go in one of two directions. One, these are basic things you should learn as a “Common Core” of understanding but then you have space to go learn some other things. Or two, this is the complete, rigorous canon of knowledge and skills that we expect you to have at the end of high school. So once we start down the road of a "one size fits all," we must also ask: are the standards a starting point or a finishing point? 

As a test maker these are important points, because now we are going to create a high-stakes test that measures your understanding of these things. If we're on the first road, a common core of information, you put teachers in a funny situation of teaching to that test. Teachers know which information is important to the test, which matters to the kids, which matters to the school, which matters to them personally and professionally. You see overwhelmingly the impact is that we stop teaching other things and focus only on the test. And by creating a minimally competent test, we inadvertently create minimally competent kids.

The second road focuses on the finish line and the idea that every student needs to come out of school with the same knowledge. As a result, we have a de facto national curriculum, and we eliminate many of the specialties that promote creativity and innovation in our country. 

I think both of those roads lead nowhere. We start with something that sounds so reasonable, that we should have a test that's objective and fair to determine who gets into college. However, it’s a little bit of a Heisenberg (Principle) that in trying to measure something we are going to change it, and in this case we are going to change it for the worse. So as lame as the people responsible for the SAT are, the truth may be that they are trying to do something that is basically impossible. 
SAIS: What do you think of the changes made to the SAT? Do you think they will improve it as a measure of learning? 
Katzman: I don’t think the answer is to simply tweak the SAT. In fact, pretty much every 12 years for the past 50 years the president of the College Board announces changes to make the SAT more relevant and less coachable. That announcement is put on the news as gospel truth. And it’s only when someone lines up the articles and sees how similar the quotes are from year to year that you realize their similarity. You sort of need Jon Stewart to show the clips to really see how ridiculous those notions are.

And the changes they’ve made have to be relatively minimal because if they made significant changes to the SAT, if they were truly measuring different things they would need to recurve the test and start from scratch.  

Still, I don’t want to be all negative I think the notion of assessment is a good one. We really do need to measure how students are doing and how schools are doing in some reasonable way. You can’t improve what you don’t measure. But a single test like the SAT or ACT or a state test, or Common Core, is the wrong answer.
SAIS: Do you think that change will be led by higher education? 
Katzman: Higher education or a good governor who wanted to be bold could have some impact. I think change can come from unlikely places, but certainly the easiest place would be a couple of college presidents getting together and saying they’ve had enough; we aren’t going to be party to this anymore. We are going to create a system that is better; not just in terms of admitting students who are going to do better in our schools, but better in the messaging and impact that the tests have on high schools. Change could also start at the federal level.

SAIS: What role do you think independent schools can take in this issue?
Katzman: Independent schools are naturals to take the lead on this issue. They care about a diversity of approaches and they respect the diversity of students, but they also care about rigor and excellence. It’s the perfect combination for learning and the way learning should happen. I would like to see independent schools maintain and expand their leadership role in education, but at the same time we can’t just be thought leaders. Our financial health and overall enrollment give us increased standing. If we are thriving it’s easier to have impact.
SAIS: Is the current environment favorable for independent schools to grow?
Katzman: I think it’s challenging. The drivers in the K12 and higher education markets are daunting. Technology tends to have a high up-front cost, then reduced marginal or variable costs, so it’s easier for large school systems to make those adjustments than independent schools. So only by collaborating can we benefit from some of the technologies coming down the pike, and that type of collaboration is challenging. 

I think the growth of the charter school movement is both an opportunity and a threat as schools that are more mission driven from the public sector offer parents a less expensive opportunity. We have to be agile and smart to offer something unique and find and sustain new enrollments and ways to generate revenue.  

  John Katzman has founded and run three education companies: The Princeton Review, 2U, and now Noodle; in each, he's brought together incredible people and helped them create transformative services and compelling cultures. He sits on the boards of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the National Association of Independent Schools, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. 


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