Thursday, June 25, 2009

Testing companies as (nonprofit) gate keepers

In the U.S., the gate keepers to many kinds of opportunities are testing companies. Tests are the "standardised" part of college admissions. While the value of tests like the SAT are somewhat controversial, they give college admissions offices numbers that are easier to compare than, say, high school grades from different high schools.

Slate follows the money, and the nonprofit status of the main testing companies: Taking the $ATs
"Last year, the SAT cost $45 for the basic test, which 1.5 million U.S. students took. The College Board does not comment on how much revenue each test brings in, but once you factor in the nearly 222,000 students who received fee waivers from the College Board, you can roughly estimate that SAT revenue was at least $58,360,365. I say at least because many students take the test over and over again, trying to refine their scores to get into better colleges. That's not to mention the litany of extra fees the College Board charges if you get your scores by phone ($12.50), rush the results ($36.50), or ask for a refund ($7). The real revenue is likely to be millions more than $58,360,365, and that's before you factor in the foreigners who want a piece of an American education ($26 international processing fee; $23 more if you're taking it in India or Pakistan).
That's only the beginning. Many colleges also demand that students take SAT Subject Tests, which are more focused than the broad-ranging SAT. The majority of students who take Subject Tests, which are at least $29 each, sit for three or more. In all, 752,854 Subject Tests were taken, leading to at least $21.8 million in revenue but certainly far more because of the flexible pricing structure.
The PSAT, which serves little purpose besides being a warm-up act for the SAT? $13 per test. In 2006, 2.7 million students took the PSAT for an estimated $35.3 million in revenue, less whatever costs the College Board waived for low-income students.
Then there are the AP exams, which assess whether students have college-level mastery of a subject, usually after taking a corresponding honors course in high school. Having an AP course on your transcript is highly attractive for your college application, just as scoring well on an AP test is highly beneficial once you get to college. So for the elite students in the country, the AP test is a necessary evil, one that costs them $86. In 2008, more than 2.7 million AP tests were taken worldwide. That's more than $232 million of revenue.
In 2006—the most recent year for which the College Board's tax returns are available—the College Board brought in a total of $582.9 million of revenue. Meanwhile, it spent only $527.8 million. That leaves it with a $55.1 million surplus.
In most cases we'd call that $55.1 million a pretty good profit margin. But here's the thing: It's not profit; it's "excess." The College Board is a nonprofit, so by law that $55.1 million has to be rolled over to the next year's budget. In exchange, the College Board gets a host of tax breaks and the cultural benefit of seeming like a cuddly, crunchy organization meant to promote educational ideals. But it's not; it's just as money-hungry and market-share-driven as any other organization. It needs to be to survive an increasingly crowded marketplace. But at what cost?
Some history for context: The College Board was started back in 1900 to help streamline the college-application process. A bunch of colleges had a confab and realized it would be easier if there were a general entrance exam that would qualify you for all the schools at once. Thus, the SAT. These days, the College Board is still a member organization, and it costs a paltry $325 a year to be in the ranks. Those dues grant you a small voice in an unwieldy representative democracy. There are more than 5,000 members, and the real decisions are made by the employees and trustees of the board."
"Of course, the College Board is not alone in its drive for revenue. Its main rival, ACT Inc., is a nonprofit out of Iowa City, Iowa, that administers the ACT test, the SAT's main competition. It had a $36 million surplus in 2007, which it says it reinvests in its programs and services, just as the College Board says it does. ACT charges 31 cents each time a college pulls a student's home address from its database, which allows the college to send a promotional brochure to a student's home. Those kind of micropayments add up. (Asked via e-mail whether the College Board had a similar fee, the College Board's spokeswoman offered no response. Test watchdogs suggest that it does, though the fee is unknown. The Big Money was not granted any interviews with the College Board or ACT officials for this story.) The Educational Testing Service, the organization that the College Board uses to actually design, score, and transport the SATs (and to a lesser degree the AP tests), had a $94 million surplus and paid its president $931,605 in 2007.
Is all of this kosher? Nonprofits in this country are generally broken down into two categories: private foundations and public charities. Private foundations are organizations that give money out. Clearly, the College Board and its brethren do not fall under that lot. Most everybody else is classified as a public charity. It's a clumsy label for a whole host of outfits that we don't think of as charities—hospitals, colleges, advocacy groups. Usually, we associate contributions to these nonprofits as being tax-deductible; it's an incentive to give money to charity that makes the nonprofit status so tempting to companies with a social mission. But checks written for the SAT and all the other standardized tests aren't tax-deductible because a service is being offered in exchange for the money. Hence, it's a transaction. A transaction that, according to the tax code, isn't nonprofit in its nature. Yet it counts toward all that revenue for the College Board, which filled out a nonprofit tax return, reaping all the benefits that go along with that. (Again, this all applies to ACT as well.)
To keep its nonprofit status, an organization must pass an IRS review every five years, which means it needs to execute its charitable mission appropriately. The College Board's charitable mission was summed up by its president in 2006: "to connect students to access and opportunity, to prepare more and more students to be ready to go to college and succeed." The quote's logic is circular. In order "to go to college and succeed," you have to get into college. And to do that, you have to prepare for and take the SAT. Certainly, the College Board can help you do that. But if the College Board didn't exist, there would be no need for it to happen in the first place."

1 comment:

Jon Baron said...

On top of this, the aptitude part of the SAT turns out to have relatively low validity by itself and approximately zero validity if colleges ask for achievement tests. Arguably, when students prepare for the aptitude test, they take time away from actually learning anything (unlike the achievement tests, where it pays to know the subject).

a very old report. The conclusions about data are supported by a published article in Educational and Psychological Measurement, 1992, 52, 1047–1055, and by many subsequent studies that have found approximately the same thing.