March 28, 2023
This is the story of what began on a summer morning, July 18th, 2026. A full-page ad appeared in The New York Times presenting a bold challenge to the College Board, a non-profit mainstay of educational measurement, in the form of an ultimatum from a group of concerned citizens with financial means:
For the next five years, our organization offers to purchase, and place in escrow, the AP scores of all students who take these exams, on the condition that you may release them to students and colleges only after the annual admissions cycle has ended and the students have been admitted to college. Thus, students will still be eligible for placement credit upon enrollment, but the applicable scores will no longer be a criterion in the admissions process. Colleges will see the AP courses on the student’s high school transcripts, but there will be no record of the exam score until after an admissions decision is made. In the event that there is a drop in demand for AP testing as a result of this new practice, we will match your income level from the previous year.
This offer is good for one month, and sufficient funds have been anonymously deposited into a trust account at a major bank. They will contact you. If rejected, we will use the funds to form a new non-profit entity, called the High School College Credit Board (“HSCCB”), for the accreditation and articulation of high school AP and Honors courses in the 24K high schools that would result in college credit equivalency. The goal is to return control of assessments to schools and teachers and open the door for new ways that curriculum can be formulated, sequenced, assessed, and verified.
The management and editorial staff of Intrepid Ed News was live with a moderated panel, analyzing the probabilities of various outcomes and the potential implications for schools and families. They were 24 hours ahead of the one-month deadline.
Moderator: What are we to make of this ultimatum that has gripped the nation?
Publisher: The High School College Credit Board is an inspired idea. This is real policy.
Editorial: It certainly is popular. Support has started flowing in from thousands of educators. We have never had quite as many articles and comments on our digital platforms.
What I’m hearing from educators is that this group of wealthy and concerned citizens has finally held up a mirror to show us what we knew all along. Namely, after billions of dollars spent on attempts to change education through technology, curriculum standards, testing standards, equitable access, and more efficiency, it’s actually blindingly obvious. Learning is not scalable when applied to children, so emulating industrial policy with standard parts and efficiency measures in schools for adolescents has never, and could never, work.
Moderator: If this is so blindingly obvious, where did the confusion come from in the first place? How did we get here?
K-12 Correspondent: Well…the confusion has come from many quarters, mostly by people drawing bad analogies in the hopes of ‘simplifying’ education: some believe that learning is packageable like inventory, in small units of material, failing to grasp the difference between information (what we often call content) and knowledge. Others believe that learning could be fluidly sequenced so one little packet of learning objectives could lead to another while ignoring basic neuroscience. Add to that what any parent will tell you about children’s curiosity, plasticity, creativity, and emotional needs. And still others believed that the social elements of learning could be accomplished by throwing children into a group of peers that spent little time interacting and more time listening to the teacher: still the prevailing pedagogy at schools, driven by the heavy standards-based curriculum. My own belief is that the product mentality has failed to realize that assessment was less about relative success and more about each individual’s approach to failure.
Moderator: “But, is it really that simple?”
Editorial: It is that simple from the perspective of understanding, and I think most educators do understand the principles our correspondent described. The issue is that simplifying education is a big compromise because schools and school districts do not have the capacity to make systemic changes and our society will not tolerate those changes. They impact everything we have traditionally believed about school: scheduling, tracking, curriculum design, workload, expectations, rigor, homework, assessment, and the outcome of all these practices, student wellness challenges. The core of teaching is trust from all parties involved in the education system, and the ultimatum would restore that. It would make the transition from a 100-year-old product-based standard of quality to an individualized assessment of progress, by placing that assessment firmly in the hands of the teachers who know the students best. Finally, assessment is being used to help teaching achieve its goal—knowledge, rather than to help students achieve high test scores.
Moderator: And what are we hearing from the technology industry? It would appear their current strategies are threatened by the ultimatum.
Tech Correspondent: As expected, there has been strong pushback from the education technology complex. There is fear. Profitability requires scalability and scalability requires standardization. There are billions of dollars at stake here. Fundamentally, the problem is that the edtech world has been finding ways to deliver information and access to schools without a plan for how that information and access would be transformed from the raw material called content to knowledge itself. Knowledge requires context and understanding, and while AI has made significant strides over the past few years, it still cannot duplicate how information is transformed into knowledge. Technology companies have supplied arsenals of sophisticated hardware to K-12 schools, along with the latest software in the form of learning management systems, access tools, digital textbooks, and online assessments to make the delivery and management of information more efficient. In the process, our students have unwittingly been making themselves the product rather than the user based on the marketing principles of social media companies. Naturally then, all the output of this technology bonanza has been a goldmine of monetizable data for testing companies to sell to colleges, of efficient access to the information and analytics for application providers, and even for colleges that have seen their applications soar and their selectivity magically improve. Even college registrars and admissions officers tout this so-called equity of opportunity. But it’s not what they make it out to be, according to these people behind the ultimatum. And it’s all a result of hyper-standardization.
Moderator: I agree. The technology industry had fallen into the same trap as those who saw assessment correlated with statistical success, rather than a holistic capacity to learn through failure. They too have been correlating success with access to resources or information disguised as knowledge. In fact, the more these standardized solutions make the case for equity of opportunity or provide access to level the playing field, the more they bury authentic assessment and feedback that would enable learning.
Editorial: Testing, ranking, and sorting students have actually paralyzed K-12 schools and shattered the dreams of many students. Dropout rates in both high school and college made it obvious to anyone that the technological content and testing industrial complex held some responsibility for the sorry state of our children’s learning and wellness in schools. It has also made teaching a less attractive career. No wonder the College Board is expressing resistance to this offer.
Moderator: Let’s turn to our College Correspondent. What has been their take so far and your analysis?
College Correspondent: This is fascinating, as I am seeing a divergence here. Some of the more selective colleges are protecting an era of feasting that has been basking in soaring applications supported by the ever-greater efficiency of standardized high school outputs. Of course, these same schools say they look at students more holistically, but their actions and the size of their admissions offices indicate otherwise. The anonymous ultimatum would potentially swing the system more in the direction of holistic evaluation, meaning selective colleges would not have access to the standardized outputs that served as their basic screening tools. Their admissions offices would be forced to expand, create stronger relationships with the nation’s high schools, and actually discourage more applications from students whose interests were not aligned with the offerings of the college. Selectivity might appear to go down numerically, but in practice, it would lead to hyper-selectivity based on a real matching of qualifications, potential, and interests with the college’s need to build a diverse community. The colleges would be forced to discover how the kids performed given the opportunities their high schools offered and what kinds of people they are. Who would know better than the teachers and the school?
Now, one group of colleges I have been talking to appears excited about the anonymous ultimatum. They are the schools that are more concerned about providing access through online alternatives than limiting access via restrictive admissions. They have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to make their online courses equivalent in quality to their in-person courses. There are about 380 top schools, including many of the large land grant institutions set up 150 years ago that offer online BA programs of that ilk. There are quite a few in this group we know have been waiting for this moment. These colleges are at the forefront of creating equitable pathways for students. They can now license to high schools relevant, interdisciplinary course content with the backing of all their research (much of it without the prerequisites of AP sequences). This would allow high schools to develop their own advanced curriculum or honors programs with far more interesting and contemporary college courses and deliver them using high school teachers. Delivering college courses in high schools to high school students would include adjustments to pacing and assessment, without worrying about AP exams. K-12 students would get real exposure to what college courses looked like, rather than proxy courses offered as APs. This is a clever strategy on the part of these colleges—those students would be also getting a first look at these colleges before they applied. The last time I looked back in 2023, the move away from the AP was well underway in independent schools with my estimation of around 60% offering AP courses, down 20% or more from its high. These independent schools have been looking for ways to avoid the cost of building their own advanced curriculum while still providing college-level courses that enhance the strength of the program and the student transcript. It might be open season for this strategy and public schools will likely jump on the bandwagon because it bridges the high school/college divide more directly, offers more equitable opportunities, and better meets the needs of aspiring students. My guess is that this licensing partnership strategy will be much bigger than direct dual enrollment because the high school teacher will be the conduit to the courses.
Moderator: So you see the College Board facing inevitable competition anyhow from colleges licensing better content to these high schools? The College Board does not have the money to compete with the budgets and research of these colleges. And they can’t exactly partner with one or two of them. I can see from an equity perspective that this program could be potentially very appealing for leveling the significant disparity of minorities by offering enrollment in higher-level and STEM courses in high school. It will also give high schools interdisciplinary content that is very difficult to build well and will have less of the hard-coded sequencing and prerequisites. I had heard that independent schools moved away in droves from the APs post-pandemic, and these schools generally have a directional impact on the rest of K12.
Let’s turn finally to our Publisher and get your take on what might be happening inside the College Board and what might happen here tomorrow.
Publisher: The College Board has known that as they grew, much of what they wanted to achieve in terms of expanding access to college was having a negative impact: providing standardized testing and curriculum that was embedded into kids’ lives impacted real learning and emotional health. It planted the seeds for a cottage industry targeted to those who could afford to buy performance through tutoring, coaching, and other tools. Like most organizations, staying true to one’s values had been compromised by large cash inflows until it was too late. For many of us, that moment of relinquishing the high ground arrived 20 years ago when the leading provider of standardized assessment also started offering prep courses for those assessments on CollegeBoard.com. For others, it was the AP African American History course debacle.
They now face little choice but to become a curriculum provider and go downstream and downmarket where the competition is thick. Would this mean offering more classes like AP Pre-Calculus introduced in 2023? That had left independent schools scratching their heads. Was AP Algebra 2 next? Or how about AP Composition and Grammar? AP Reading Skills? Would middle schoolers who did not do AP Pre-Algebra be harming their chances for admission to Harvard?
The invisible hand of the education market is now forcing a squeeze on the College Board from all sides—the schools that are developing their own advanced curriculum, the colleges (better funded than them) that are looking to license their college content to high schools or offer dual enrollment directly to students, and the students who have lost trust in the benefits of the race they were being told would set them up for life. With or without the ultimatum or the HSCCB, the end of this movie is fast becoming clear. The role that the College Board has been playing in the ever-narrowing space between high school and college has been arbitraged away by providing more of the same, and with no second act. They are at a strategic dead end. Money and its temptation have taken care of business.
A group of smart anonymous people has figured out that the College Board is no longer any part of the solution for the nation’s educational future. In fact, they see the urgent need to purge the toxicity quickly and usher in a new era of individualized and equitable learning: where students could trust teachers with their failure, not just their success, where assessment is the domain of the teacher, and childhood is once again a safe place, not a mad race. It is a Hobson’s Choice for a once-powerful, noble non-profit.
Moderator: And with that, thanks to all of you for watching. Stay tuned tomorrow at the same time for our coverage of this historic moment in our children’s lives.
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Sanje Ratnavale for Intrepid Ed News.