By Kiara Kunnes and Charlie Keohane, Print Editor-in-Chief and News Editor
// One recruited athlete who received a full-ride scholarship has taken the SAT. One academically oriented student who has consistently taken Advanced Placement (AP) classes every year. Another student who hasn’t taken any AP classes but needs to apply for financial aid.
By the time they apply to college as seniors, all of these students will have one thing in common: they’re tethered to the College Board.
Founded in 1900, the College Board aimed to revolutionize the college admissions process through standardized testing. By the 1950s and 60s, most universities accepted the SAT as a nation-wide admissions standard, and the College Board grew even further by establishing the AP system.
Today, the College Board is heavily entrenched in the lives of students through the SAT, the AP system, and their College Scholarship Service (CSS), a financial aid profile. However, as the College Board’s profits mount, some students and teachers have begun to question the integrity of the nonprofit, tax-exempt organization.
According to the Acalanes Union High School District’s (AUHSD) 2018 assessment report, during the 2017-2018 school year, 52 percent of AUHSD students grades 10-12 took at least one AP test. The report also saw that a little less than half, 47 percent, of Acalanes High School students took at least one AP test during that same period.
In addition, about 57 percent of students from the Acalanes class of 2018 took the SAT, while a smaller percentage of these students took the ACT, the College Board’s only competitor against the SAT.
By the end of their high school career, Blueprint estimates that most Acalanes students will pay the College Board between $300 and $750. Said differently, the collective payment to the board from Acalanes may be between $390,000 and $975,000.
The Driving Force Behind College Board’s Possible Monopoly
In the eyes of some students and teachers, the College Board holds an unfair monopoly on education, especially regarding AP classes.
In 2018, 2,808,990 students across the nation took AP exams. These students took a total of 5,090,324 of such exams since many of them are enrolled in multiple AP classes.
The College Board currently offers 38 exams, spanning across a wide variety of disciplines from AP Computer Science Principles to AP Literature and AP English Composition. Acalanes now offers 12 AP classes on campus, but these course options vary within the district.
The AP program has expanded consistently and rapidly since its launch in 1955. By 2000, almost one million students were enrolled for the exams, and that number nearly tripled by 2018, according to a College Board report. Acalanes has seen the growth of the non-profit on campus as well.
“I’ve taught a really long time, and I’ve just watched it grow,” AP U.S. History teacher Jed Morrow said. “I could tell you how many sections were offered in different classes in different schools I’ve been at. I can just say that I know that in the year 2000 there was little to no AP U.S. history. There were one or two sections offered here. I can tell you at Campolindo they had no AP U.S. History until something like 2001 or maybe one section at the most.”
Acalanes now offers four sections, or class periods, of AP U.S. History.
As a result of the growing AP system, the College Board has obtained a large sphere of influence over high school districts across America, including the AUHSD.
“The College Board has an influence most significantly through the Advanced Placement program where they develop the curriculum and assessments. They review our curriculum to make sure it’s aligned,” AUHSD Superintendent John Nickerson said.
The College Board’s reach surpasses merely shaping curriculum. According to Morrow, the AUHSD’s decision to start school earlier next year is part of an effort to give teachers more instructional days before the annual AP tests in May.
The AP system’s dominance can be attributed to its limited competition. The International Baccalaureate (IB) program serves as the only significant alternative, and even that is far less widespread than the AP system. Neither Acalanes nor any other school in the AUHSD offers IB classes.
According to AP Comparative Government and Politics teacher Joe Schottland who previously taught under the IB program, similarities between the AP and IB systems include a prescribed curriculum and an opportunity to receive college credit. However, fundamental differences explain the lack of competition between the two.
“It was really designed for a globalized world so that you could get this International Baccalaureate, which would then apply to and be accepted in not only American universities but also universities in Europe and so forth,” Schottland said.
The IB system is designed as a set program of courses. Unlike the AP system where students choose the individual classes they want to take, students are expected to select a certain amount of courses so they can receive an IB diploma.
Due to the IB program’s strict structure, fewer schools participate. If a school wants to provide IB classes, it has to purchase the system and become an IB authorized school, which is a multi-step process, according to the IB website.
The AP system is additionally far more straightforward in comparison since it only requires an individual to pay for his or her test and achieve a particular score to receive AP credit. To take an AP test, a student is not required to be enrolled in an AP class, whereas the IB system mandates enrollment.
Some Acalanes teachers are concerned over the College Board’s dominance with the AP system.
“There’s nothing competitive with AP, and so College Board, it’s a monopoly. There for sure seems to me that you absolutely need to take these classes,” Schottland said. “If you’re looking at top level schools, you could get away with not taking the SAT, taking only the ACT. But at a lot of top schools, to distinguish yourself from another student at another top school, you’re going to need a bunch of AP classes. There’s nothing that is competitive.”
Many students also believe that AP classes are a necessary measure for acceptance to a top college.
“With trying to get into more prestigious universities, whether they accept AP credit or not, I feel the rigor of the course is still something they’d want to see. So I think [AP classes] aren’t necessary, but to try and get into competitive universities, it’s hard not to take them,” senior Brian Kirsch said.
With all of its control, the College Board holds a vital role in establishing a national standard for student performance.
“Benefits are the AP, and the College Board set high standards that are easily recognized by colleges and high schools. If a student has a certain score on AP tests, the colleges understand what that means,” Morrow said.
The rigor of the AP system also helps prepare students for college by teaching them how to handle advanced coursework.
“The rigor I like for you guys because the way I sell the classes is if you did not play a sport for a year and then decided to go to try out freshman year for your college sport, you would probably not make the team because you’d be out of shape,” Schottland said. “I think it is the same thing with the intellectual ability. If you slack off your senior year, when you go up to a really tough college, you’re going to have a hard time that freshman year getting back in shape, intellectual shape.”
Although the AP system allows students to challenge themselves, the rigidity of the curriculum can limit the content students learn. The College Board curriculum’s flexibility varies by subject, as some subjects like history and science have set structures while the AP Literature and Composition curriculum centers on techniques such as timed writes.
AP Literature and Composition teacher Erin Barth teaches her freshman and junior classes the same skills of effective writing and close reading as she does her AP seniors. She appreciates having the flexibility to explain whatever texts she chooses as long as students acquire college-level writing and reading skills.
“I feel like even though there’s this test at the end, I’m still teaching the class the way that I want. Everything I do in my class is something that I’ve developed,” Barth said.
However, classes like AP U.S. History have to cover a more specific curriculum before the AP exam.
“The rigidity of the curriculum forces teachers to teach to that curriculum, which in spite of advantages, sometimes can tie their hands,” Morrow said.
In a push to increase flexibility, the College Board is attempting to adapt its history curriculum by cutting out some details and putting a greater emphasis on historical thinking skills.
Although the AP system comes with a number of both faults and benefits, some believe that the Acalanes community would be better off with solely an honors system.
“In my perfect world, we would ditch the whole Advanced Placement program, and we would teach our own advanced and honors program and make design curriculum that we think is best for our students,” Nickerson said.
The ACT Competitor
For most juniors, the spring is filled with finals, sports, clubs, and a myriad of other activities to beef up their college resumes. Many students also dive into the world of standardized testing and have to choose between taking the SAT and the ACT.
The College Board’s SAT currently reigns supreme nationally as the most popular test, with two million students taking the SAT in 2018 versus the 1.91 million students who took the ACT. SAT’s popularity has increased more than 20 percent from 2017 when only 1.7 million students took the exam.
The ACT was introduced in 1959 as a testing alternative to the traditional SAT. Despite being the newer test, both are viewed as equally valid methods of measuring student performance.
“I don’t think that stigma is there anymore. I think they’re just slightly different,” Nickerson said. “The tests are more similar now than they used to be.”
Although they vary in timing and style, both test students on reading, English, and math. To modernize, the College Board redesigned the SAT in 2016, eliminating the guessing penalty and the vocabulary section.
“The College Board redesigned the SAT to make it more straightforward and connected to classroom learning. The redesigned SAT makes it easier for students to show their best work,” College Board Associate Direction of Media Relations Jaslee Carayol said in an email interaction.
However, an article from Business Insider speculates that College Board actually changed its test due to increasing pressure from the ACT and the possibility of declining test takers amid the rise of test-optional schools.
The redesigned SAT actually hurt participation, as only 1.7 million students took the SAT compared to the nearly 2.1 million students who took the ACT in 2016.
Nickerson relates the ACT’s 2016 popularity to the SAT redesign.
“There were a lot of questions about what that meant, and a lot of people felt it might be more difficult to prepare for it,” Nickerson said.
However, Acalanes students do not have equal access to both tests. Acalanes High School is an SAT National Testing Center, where the SAT is offered four times a year. Students from all over the Bay Area, not just AUHSD students, can take the SAT in October, November, May, or June. In addition, the PSAT is offered every October.
Unlike the SAT, the ACT is not available on any of the AUHSD campuses, which forces students to explore other testing options around the Bay Area.
“We offer our site as a testing center really for the convenience of our students,” Nickerson said. “We’ve tried to expand the availability for ACT and ACT hasn’t allowed.”
The College Board also sweetens the deal for students with a partnership with Khan Academy to provide free personalized SAT practice.
Shifting Relevance of the SAT
To make the application process more accessible, some universities and colleges are taking steps to undercut the power of standardized tests. From small liberal arts colleges like Bowdoin College in Maine to elite urban ones like the University of Chicago, more schools are choosing to go test-optional. Now, students can decide whether or not to send their ACT or SAT score with their application.
“I think it’s a great way to let kids who don’t test well perform well on the college admissions,” Acalanes College and Career Advisor Kristin Kisner said. “It takes a lot of pressure off.”
Kisner elaborated that each school approaches test-optional differently, and applicants may need to submit an extra supplemental essay or a graded academic essay instead.
In 1969, Bowdoin College became the first college to go test optional. In a statement issued to Blueprint, Bowdoin College stated how they respond to test score submissions.
“If we have the test results, we use them as part of the review. If testing is absent, our review process, which is built on the required materials in the application, is a reliable predictor for how well a student will adapt to the academic work in the first year at Bowdoin,” the statement said.
Other schools such as Washington D.C.’s George Washington University made the switch more recently.
“Our decision was made to broaden access for those high-achieving students who have historically been underrepresented at selective colleges and universities, including students of color, first-generation students and students from low-income households,” Andrea Frangi, Regional Director Office of Undergraduate Admissions at George Washington University, said in an email interaction.
Despite recent changes and setbacks, the SAT still prevails as a standard method of testing students’ academic performance.
“The SAT makes it easier for students to show their best work. It measures what students are learning in high school, and what they need to know to succeed in college and career,” Carayol said.
Checking Out the College Board’s Financial Aid
With United States colleges having some of the highest college tuitions in the world, financial aid is crucial. To help students determine their eligibility for financial assistance, programs such as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the College Board’s College Scholarship Service (CSS) have arisen. The U.S. Department of Education runs FAFSA, and the College Board manages CSS.
There are two crucial differences between FAFSA and CSS. The first is FAFSA offers federal and sometimes state and institutional aid, while CSS only provides institutional assistance. The second is FAFSA is free, while CSS’s requires a $25 application. CSS charges students $16 for every report sent to schools after the first.
CSS allows many students to receive additional aid and has helped some avoid or limit the sometimes debilitating debt that frequently follows college.
“The College Board’s College Scholarship Service (CSS) has pioneered need-based financial aid solutions for over 60 years. CSS Profile opens the door to over $9 billion in grant aid for thousands of students each year,” Carayol said.
The accomplishments of CSS reveal how the College Board has helped students, but it also demonstrates the College Board’s expanding influence in the college admissions process.
The College Board’s Purse
When someone signs up to take an AP exam, the SAT, or a CSS profile, it costs money. More fees add up if students change the test date, send scores to colleges, or go on the waitlist registration.
According to the Huffington Post, the College Board’s annual profits are close to 700 million dollars, which raises some students’ concern over their payments to the organization. By the end of their high school career, the average Acalanes student may pay the College Board anywhere from $300 to more than $800.
A hypothetical student could have taken the SAT with the Essay portion two times ($64.50 each time) and requested the Student Answer Service ($13.50 for each test), which tells explicitly students the questions they missed, for both of these tests. This student then chose to send his highest total score on the SAT to seven schools ($12 after the first four score reports, if those reports are requested nine days after the test administration). Perhaps the student also chose to take three AP tests ($110 for each test). The student sent all three AP test score reports to the same seven schools ($15 for each report). In hopes of receiving extra financial aid, this student applies for CSS ($25) and sends his profile to his seven schools ($16 after the first report). This student will have given the College Board $748 by the end of their high school career.
“They have figured out a way to profit from every aspect of applying to college,” senior Anais Zepeda said. “I find it absurd that I had to pay an individual fee for every school that I wanted to send my test scores to. I feel that the amount of money required to apply to schools, take tests and all the fees that the College Board charges become a deterrent for many people.”
Other students also believe that the services offered by the College Board are overpriced.
“You’re paying them to sit in a room for hours to take a test and then for the answer sheet to get sent off and graded—that shouldn’t cost as much as it does,” senior Aidan Lewis said.
Although College Board programs are expensive, they can also save students money in the long run by allowing them to opt out of college courses.
“While the College Board does seem to have some money-making schemes, I think many students exaggerate the financial burden. I believe that the SAT should be cheaper since it is basically required to apply for college,” junior Kara Mickas said. “However, I understand the expense of AP tests, given that AP credit could replace a college course, which would be much more costly, later on in one’s academic career.”
In response to Blueprint’s questions, the College Board maintained its dedication to education.
“We are not focused on increasing revenue, but increasing the number of students who are college and career ready,” Carayol said.
What’s Next? Exploring the Future of the College Board
Students and teachers have different theories of how the College Board will continue to adapt over time. Some believe that the College Board has already maximized its success and will eventually fade out.
“I think it’s already reached a peak,” Morrow said. “Our awareness of student health issues is part of what’s forcing it to level off and maybe forcing curtailment of AP classes.”
However, Morrow believes that public pressure may keep the College Board thriving.
“The problem for the district is parents and students are still calling for AP and demanding it because they see it as a necessary requirement for being admitted to better schools,” Morrow said. “And so our district responds to the demands of the public. If the public demands lots of AP classes, we’re going to offer it.”
Many agree that the College Board, already heavily established in schools across the country, will go on to seek new audiences.
“I do know that the College Board was making an effort to grow,” Schottland said. “They were making an effort to grow into demographics that they hadn’t reached, particularly minority and underserved communities.”
Junior Harrison Seymour also predicts that it would be unlikely for the College Board to lose its popularity.
“Unless some scandal or nationwide opposition towards the company arises, then they will continue their monopoly over the testing,” Seymour said.