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Shift for Education Conservancy

Shift for Education Conservancy
May 27, 2010

One of the values of the Education Conservancy -- a group committed to reforming college admissions -- is that "students can be evaluated but not measured." The conservancy, which has gained the most visibility for its campaign against rankings, has never opposed all standardized testing. But it has criticized testing companies.

College Unranked, the book that kicked off the group, features one essay that says that "the marketing of [College Board] products, including the tests, undermines the very 'equity and access' the [College Board] promotes (and does nothing at all for excellence)." Another essay says that educators must "confront the SAT," by questioning its role, and encouraging colleges to require the SAT II (subject matter tests) instead of the original SAT. Further, the essay says that for the College Board -- an association of colleges and secondary schools -- to fulfill its mission it should "for its soul's sake" give up the SAT business.

There are no signs that the College Board is going to do that any time soon. But the College Board does have a new partner: none other than the Education Conservancy. The upstart admissions group will be redesigning the College Board's Web services for students and families planning for college. The College Board issued a statement in which it praised the conservancy and said that it would help create better options for students, especially those who don't have sufficient access to college advising in high school.

For the Education Conservancy, the move marks a shift. The College Board project will reflect "the ideals" of CollegeSpeak, a prototype the conservancy unveiled two years ago as a sort of "anti-rankings" to counter the influence of U.S. News & World Report and other rankings entities, according to Lloyd Thacker, the founder of the conservancy.

But the conservancy will no longer attempt to get that project off the ground. Rather, the conservancy will have a consulting contract with the College Board for the next three years to redesign its college search tools, based on the ideas of CollegeSpeak. (Thacker declined to reveal the value of the contract or which features of CollegeSpeak it might include, saying that the effort was still evolving.)

CollegeSpeak was to feature highly individual portrayals of colleges -- largely removed from the statistics and reputation approach -- and was going to encourage prospective students to consider a series of questions to help define the kinds of colleges (by qualities, not test scores or prestige) that might be good for them. In an interview Wednesday, Thacker said that getting the project beyond the prototype was too expensive, especially since he introduced the project just as the economy was going into a deep decline.

In the interview, Thacker acknowledged that his group's joining forces with the College Board would seem unlikely to many. He said that when he mentioned to one fan of the conservancy a while ago that he was going to a meeting at the board's headquarters, the person asked Thacker if he would be wearing garlic around his neck. And when Thacker first introduced CollegeSpeak before a group of generally enthusiastic admissions officers and mentioned that he would need to get funding to move the idea, several in the audience immediately said that he should not seek support from the College Board.

"I've never bought into the idea that the College Board is an evil empire," Thacker said. "It is a prominent and capable organization, and this partnership will provide a means for achieving delivery" of the ideals of CollegeSpeak and the Education Conservancy, he added. To those who urged him not to join with the College Board, he said, "if they liked the ideals that this reflected, do they want them to have an impact, or to stay in Portland, Oregon?" (the organization's headquarters).

He stressed that any Web materials he helps create for the College Board will be non-commercial, and will not promote the SAT. He said information on testing will include the SAT and the ACT, and that the site will provide information about colleges that are test-optional in admissions.

Thacker said that he was not giving up on the idea that there are serious flaws in standardized testing. "Is standardized testing overused and abused? Sure it is. Should the College Board take more responsibility for how the test is used? Sure," he said. But he said that the College Board's willingness to work with him was a sign of the organization's open attitude. "They have invited somebody in who has raised questions they are uncomfortable with," he said. "I will continue to be critical, but I can't deny that this organization has a good mission and wants to do good."

Thacker noted that the Education Conservancy is also working on other efforts. He met recently with a major philanthropic leader about a project in which the conservancy would explore ways that colleges might collaborate without fear of violating antitrust laws. Many private college leaders have said that they believe they might be able to reduce the "merit" aid they award (frequently to students who aren't needy) if they could do so in conjunction with other colleges -- through agreements that many fear could attract antitrust scrutiny.

Further, the Education Conservancy has received a grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education to work with Consumers Union to conduct surveys and interviews to "engage students in assessing the value of the information they used and explore what could have improved the consideration process" for college admissions. The idea is "to understand what students want and what they need to make good decisions -- so that more students attend and succeed in college."

 

 

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