Let’s Get Digital

It has been said (including by me) that the first time you do something it’s innovation, and the second time tradition.

The title of the previous post was a feeble attempt at humor, featuring a bad pun based on a line from a Barry Manilow song. The title of this post features a less bad pun based on a song by Olivia Newton-John. I assure you that this will not become a habit.

One of the joys of writing this blog is finding a community of readers and correspondents. When I started eleven years ago I was far from sure that I had anything worth saying (on many days that is still the case) and far less sure that anyone would want to read my musings. I am grateful for the ECA readers who send me emails about specific articles or who stop me at conferences (I don’t mention that because I’m looking for compliments and comments).

I occasionally get emails from readers suggesting topics for me to address. I remember flying into San Diego for the NACAC Conference a few years back. While I was in the air with my phone in airplane mode, the announcement came out about the introduction of the Coalition Application. By the time I landed I had an email from now-retired loyal ECA reader Jon Reider with the message, “Someone needs to do something about this.” I quickly inferred that “someone” meant me. In 2019 when the Operation Varsity Blues scandal hit and the media insisted on calling it an “admissions” scandal, legendary Georgetown Dean of Admissions Charlie Deacon contacted me to suggest that I point out that none of those charged were admissions or counseling professionals (unless you consider mastermind Rick Singer an independent educational consultant rather than a con man masquerading as one).

Last week ECA reader Tim Gallen reached out to ask that I write about the fiasco regarding the October 11 administration of the new digital PSAT. That day lots of schools and lots of students attempted to administer or take the PSAT only to instead get a message on the College Board test day website, “Sorry! There is something wrong on our end and we’re working hard to fix it. Come back later and try again.” Social media erupted with messages from frustrated counselors.

It is important to stop here and recognize that the failures of the College Board to deliver its product are a minor inconvenience compared with what the people of Israel went through four days before with the terrorist attack, murders, and hostage taking on the part of Hamas. The events in the Middle East quickly put college admissions issues into perspective.

Nevertheless, the digital PSAT failure was beyond annoying for many counselors. Tim recounted his frustrations. “For me, part of the frustration was how little guidance we got from College Board. It seemed like I could never find the answers on their web site that I needed, I spent hours on hold without being able to get through to anyone on the phone before the test, and the emails came very late in the process…I also spent many extra hours going into the exam trying to figure out who had completed their exam setup and who had not because the dashboard forces us to check each student individually.  I provided more free labor for this exam than any other in my 21 years administering the PSAT.” He added that the College Board never reached out to PSAT coordinators to acknowledge the problem or to let them know that the Test Day Toolkit app was back online.

Should the College Board have anticipated that things would go wrong and been more prepared? This is not the first time that technology has failed during a College Board exam, including at least one Advanced Placement exam last spring.

I am willing to give the CB a pass on the tech problems. We all know that technology will fail at inopportune times. I remember the technology administrator at my school doing a presentation about technology as a transformative teaching tool during faculty work week. In the midst of his presentation the internet connection failed, confirming the suspicions of his skeptics. On the very first day of school after we moved to post student schedules on the Student Information System, the SIS went down in the first hour of the day, and when a student who was late to school because of a doctor’s appointment wanted to know where he should go to class, no one could tell him.

I am less gracious about the College Board’s response to the screw-up. I went on the College Board website the morning after the fiasco. There was nothing in the College Board newsroom. The only acknowledgement that there had been an issue was a box at the top of the SAT suite help center with a green check mark and the words “The earlier issue with Test Day Toolkit has been resolved. You can proceed with testing. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

I’m not sure that’s sufficient. Apologizing for the “inconvenience” sounds corporate, the kind of apology you get when an airline cancels your flight. It’s not far from the classic non-apology, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.”  There’s no responsibility taken and no acknowledgement that the screw-up upended school days all over the country, wasting time and generating stress for both students and counselors.

There is a bigger issue here. Why should schools provide free labor for the College Board? Why should counselors do the work while the CB collects the revenue? It’s not like the College Board is poor. In 2021 (the most recent year for which a Form 990 is available), it made $112 million in profit. That’s a pretty profitable non-profit.

It’s a question worth considering. A College Board presentation at the recent NACAC conference in Baltimore indicated that 60 percent of SAT administrations are now done through school day testing rather than at test centers. School day testing and the digital test will place more burden on schools and school counselors. When we administer the PSAT or SAT in school, are we acting as agents of our school or for the benefit of the College Board? It’s mostly for the College Board. So where is the compensation?

Is administering the PSAT still necessary in a test-optional college admissions world? And is it time for school counselors who administer College Board tests to join Hollywood writers and auto workers and go on strike for better pay and better working conditions, i.e. technology that works?   

The prior post mentioned and all of James Jump’s prior posts can be found on his blog at the Thoughtful College Search. Here is a link – http://www.thoughtfulcollegesearch.com/