Some or All of the Above: College Board’s Timely Lesson on Education Reform

There's no simple answer.

When a friend asked me what I thought about a recent New York Times column lauding College Board’s overhaul of their curricula, I took a deep breath. I hadn’t yet seen Thomas Friedman’s column, but I did know that College Board’s role in education is complicated. As you probably know, they are the creators of the SAT and Advanced Placement exams.

So I read the column. And now I have two thoughts.

Firstly, I applaud the organization for asking real questions about the role of education in society. College Board could easily rest on their own laurels and business model. But the fact that they are questioning, at the highest levels, what is most important for children to learn in school to participate in a democracy merits praise. I also agree wholly with where they landed. They emphasize the importance of young people becoming versed in two “codes,” by which they mean the US Constitution and computer programming. As Friedman put it:

Their short answer was that if you want to be an empowered citizen in our democracy — able to not only navigate society and its institutions but also to improve and shape them, and not just be shaped by them — you need to know how the code of the U.S. Constitution works. And if you want to be an empowered and adaptive worker or artist or writer or scientist or teacher — and be able to shape the world around you, and not just be shaped by it — you need to know how computers work and how to shape them.

If young people are going to contribute to society in both economic and civic ways, they must understand how the Constitution and computer code–if used well–operationalize democracy. College Board’s stance makes it possible that future generations might see how algorithms can embody injustice, for instance, when they are used to offer bank loans at higher interest rates to the poor or to sentence criminals to jail based on demographics. I would go a step further to argue that the Constitution should comprise the backbone of every school’s K-12 curricula and that computer science should be embedded into all subjects every year. But that’s just me.

Secondly, I felt that, at times, the complexity of the questions being asked were not being met with a commitment to complex answers. For example, Friedman writes:

The new [AP Computer Science] course debuted in 2016. Enrollment was the largest for a new course in the history of Advanced Placement, with just over 44,000 students nationwide.

He then cites impressive increases in the numbers of students that took the new computer science tests who identify as being of color or female. But what Friedman doesn’t say is that there has been a nationwide initiative underway since 2016 called Computer Science for All (CS4All) that has promoted and funded K-12 computer science education. Launched by the Obama Administration, CS4All has allocated public, private, and philanthropic money to support students learning computer science, including taking AP courses and exams. In short, those 44,000 students are not the result of the College Board alone. It is misleading to suggest that College Board’s thoughtful changes to the exam, which now emphasizes computational concepts rather than decontextualized programming skills, were solely responsible for the upticks.

Praise is due, yes, but it should be doled out to all contributors fairly.

In a similar vein, Friedman implies that the success of one school is evidence of wholesale victory. Writing about College Board’s updates to the AP US Government and Politics exam, he declares that “Kids are getting it” because a “class at Hightstown High School in New Jersey was credited in a Senate committee report with contributing content to a bill, the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act, which was signed into law last month.” I do not discount the contribution those students made and I love that they had a rich real-world learning experience: a high school class that resulted in legislative impact. But their experience is, by definition, exceptional. They represent one classroom of students, led by a dedicated teacher I bet, who took a risk to put their ideas out there. Ultimately, luck played as great a role as gumption. But that is hardly the norm for your average student in AP classes around the country. Friedman would be wise to note so.

Make no mistake: College Board’s power is its influence. If it changes its exams to emphasize more nuanced concepts and skills like constitutionality and computationality, then there could be a trickle down effect into the curricula in schools nationwide.

That power is not something to scoff at. Nor is it something to oversimplify.

College Board is shifting itself into a new space, one where they are trying new strategies to assert their influence over a national school system that is fairly unbridled. (Remember: education is not mentioned in the US Constitution anywhere. Education can only be found in state constitutions. That means effecting reform at scale in America is incredibly challenging because you have fifty different governments to deal with.) I am eager to see how far College Board is willing to go to continue the very timely conversation they started–and how they will support schools in updating curricula to better prepare all children to understand that the Constitution and computers shape a great deal about their worlds.

If they take their vision seriously, College Board will have to confront a bubbling tension that is surfacing. Theirs is a business that has heretofore relied on exceptionalism. Typically, only some students get to take AP courses and of those who take the courses only some do well enough to earn college credit. The SATs are exams meant to assess just how exceptional children are. But recent changes to their curricula suggest College Board envisions a more equitable society where all children are prepared for the rigors of democracy in the digital age.

So, which is it going to be: exceptionalism or equity? That might be College Board’s toughest question yet.

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