What’s the difference between euphemism and doublespeak? There’s probably a fine line between the two, and the dividing line is intent.
One uses euphemisms as a polite way to hint at things others may find unpleasant. We say that someone is “under the weather” rather than “sick,” but in truth we are all under, or at least surrounded by, the weather. When we say that a student has passed, that’s a good thing, whereas when someone my age has “passed,” it’s not nearly as positive, akin to “swimming with the fishes.” And does anyone (other than coke addicts) actually “powder their nose” when they excuse themselves for that purpose?
Doublespeak, in contrast, is language designed to deceive and is usually associated with governmental and corporate entities. In 2017 United Airlines forcibly removed a passenger from an overbooked flight. The only thing worse than the action itself was United’s description of the event as “re-accommodating” the passenger. That same year, White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway was the recipient of the Doublespeak Award presented by the National Council of Teachers of English for her reference to “alternative facts” to defend Donald Trump’s false claims about crowd size at his inauguration. That claim, made on the first day of the Trump presidency, turned out to be prophetic about the Trumpian attitude to truth and facts both during and since his term in office.
Recently an Inside Higher Ed article pointed out that the College Board is no longer making public data about the performance on Advanced Placement exams by different racial groups. The article quoted Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University, who on Twitter wrote that what the College Board is calling “streamlined reporting” is actually withholding data.
The College Board’s action raises several questions. Since we’re referring to the College Board, let’s pose the first of those questions in a College Board–friendly format.
In the passage above, the term “streamlined reporting” is:
- A. A euphemism
- B. Doublespeak
- C. Both of the above
- D. None of the above
Jon Boeckenstedt’s answer would seem to be b), as his tweet described the College Board’s change to “streamlined reporting” as “the most 1984-esque example of College Board-speak I’ve seen in a while.” If I had to answer that question on a standardized test, I’d probably skip the question until I could answer some additional questions. Given the College Board’s willingness and haste to answer questions about “streamlined reporting,” I’d probably need to qualify for unlimited additional time.
There are far more interesting and important questions than whether “streamlined reporting” qualifies linguistically as euphemism or doublespeak.
The first is why stop reporting the data? What has changed that makes the data no longer relevant or publicly available? It is true that the 2020 AP exams were a different instrument, only 45 minutes in length and taken online, and the general perception was that those scores were higher. It is also the case that the College Board argued to both students and colleges that the scores for the 2020 tests were just as valid as the three-hour exams given in previous years.
I don’t fault the College Board for the changed format in the middle of the pandemic, but I wonder about the claim that an exam that lasts only a quarter as long produces equally valid results. If that is the case, why revert to the longer, traditional format?
The conspiracy theorists among us will probably jump to a conclusion that the “streamlined reporting” is all about hiding data related to race or ethnicity that the College Board finds embarrassing or fears may harm its business model, given that it is more reliant on the AP program for revenue now that the test-optional movement has reduced the revenue it receives from the SAT. But the racial/ethnic score discrepancies are not a new phenomenon.
One of the challenges for the testing industry has always been the disparity in scores among different segments of the population. Critics of testing such as Ibram Kendi have argued that the disparity in scores among different racial and ethnic groups serves as evidence that the tests are biased. Others argue that the disparities merely reflect larger issues of inequality in our society, and that differences in scores are correlated more with income than racial or ethnic background.
I sympathize with the College Board if it fears that releasing the data will embolden the political forces looking to turn back the clock on attempts to make America a multicultural society and to increase opportunity for historically underrepresented populations. But as a college counselor, I have always believed in reality therapy—that students, parents and counselors should make decisions based on good information rather than hope. If standardized test scores are lower for some groups, then we are better off knowing what we’re dealing with. We need to figure out what the score discrepancies mean rather than pretend they don’t exist. By removing the data, the College Board opens itself to criticism that it is “woke” or “politically correct” (both terms I abhor).
Perhaps there is a good reason for the decision, and I reached out to the College Board for an explanation. I received a response that the communications office would find out the answer and get back to me, but there has been no follow-up response. I’m glad I wasn’t holding my breath.
Even if there was a good reason for not reporting data for the past couple of years, why scrub the historical data from the website? That’s harder to defend, given that the data were public.
The operative ethical principle here is transparency. Those of us in the college admissions counseling profession (which includes the testing industry) should be transparent about what we do and why we do it. Underlying that is respect for students, parents and the public to be able to handle the truth, whereas withholding information reflects either paternalism or arrogance. College Board president David Coleman has been quoted as saying, “We prefer transparency.” Just not in this case, apparently.
The other question here is existential. Is the College Board a corporate entity or a membership organization? The “streamlined reporting” suggests that the CB considers the data proprietary, which is an attitude that is corporate. The College Board is nominally a nonprofit membership organization (although a very lucrative one), but did it consult members about this change?
“Streamlined reporting” feels like a euphemism for “executive privilege,” where the concern is not national security but rather embarrassment. Whatever the rationale, it doesn’t pass the smell test. Please excuse me while I powder my nose.