College Board’s New President Sees ‘Walls That Must Come Down’

David Coleman speaks at the organization’s annual meeting, in Miami. (College Board photo)

Miami — Members of the College Board heard on Wednesday from their new president, an ambitious education reformer who cites Kant and Rousseau, who hails standards and rigor, and who, much like the nonprofit organization he now leads, defies easy categorization.

In a 75-minute speech here at the College Board’s annual conference, David Coleman described his vision for the group’s future, which may well include changes in its signature product—the SAT. Mr. Coleman suggested that the College Board would play a larger role in preparing students to succeed well before they reach high school. And he closed with a surprising flourish, asking his audience to read a passage from the autobiography of Martha Graham, the late dancer and choreographer.

Mr. Coleman’s boots have long been planted in the elementary- and secondary-school realm. He is a co-founder of Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization that helped develop and promote the Common Core State Standards, which prescribe what students should learn, in English and math, from kindergarten through high school. Designed to prepare students for college, the standards, adopted by all but a handful of states, have sparked debates about teaching and learning, while winning Mr. Coleman many supporters and critics who share nothing if not passionate opinions of his ideas.

Along the way, Mr. Coleman has become known for his colorful—and controversial—remarks. At the beginning of his speech, joking that the College Board’s trustees were fretting about his saying something inappropriate, he said: “It is just a matter of time.”

And then came the metaphors. “I have accepted the honor of becoming president of the College Board,” Mr. Coleman said, “because I believe there are two walls that must come down.”

One wall: Students’ academic progress, especially in literacy, has stalled in later grades. Educators, Mr. Coleman insisted, must not take comfort in the explanation that SAT scores, particularly in reading, have declined because test takers have become more diverse.

“In my judgment, the College Board has to face the fact that while it has grown as an institution over the last 15 years, academic performance in later grades is frozen or declining,” he said. “Can we truly call the College Board a success when our students are falling behind the older they get?”

The other wall: There is too little diversity among high-performing students, Mr. Coleman told his audience. “The College Board, as an institution committed to equity and excellence, cannot tolerate inequity at the heights of excellence,” he said.

Mr. Coleman’s talk was more of a declaration of mission than an outline of specific plans. Still, he hinted that the College Board would draw on the blueprint of the Advanced Placement program, which grew significantly under his predecessor, Gaston Caperton. The College Board’s strategic challenge, Mr. Coleman suggested, was to replicate that college-preparation model in middle schools.

“Unless rigor is delivered at scale in earlier grades,” he said, “there’s no way we can bring down the walls that I described.”

Echoing previous statements about the SAT, Mr. Coleman indicated that the College Board might revise the exam so as to better align it with the core standards, as well as with the needs of colleges. He reiterated his concerns about the SAT’s timed essay, in which style and structure now matter more than the accuracy of content; he imagined exercises that ask students to analyze source materials.

Mr. Coleman extended that thought to college-application prompts that emphasize personal reflections. “There’s a heavy cost of sole reliance on the personal essay to get into college,” he said. Why not ask students to write an analytic essay in which they cite evidence?

Among the many characterizations of Mr. Coleman, one, at least, seems indisputably true. He’s an intense, careful reader. He recalled discovering Flowers for Algernon in middle school, trying to pry open its meanings. He relayed the advice that his mother, Elizabeth Coleman, now president of Bennington College, once shared about succeeding in college: “Read what keeps you up at night.”

So perhaps it was inevitable that Mr. Coleman asked his audience to read something. As copies of a passage from Martha Graham’s autobiography, Blood Memory, were distributed among the rows, he asked his mother to read the first paragraph.

“I believe that we learn by practice,” it began. “Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing, or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated, precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which come shape of achievement, the sense of one’s being, the satisfaction of spirit.”

The long passage, which continued for several minutes as others stood to read each paragraph aloud, seemed to baffle some listeners, who fidgeted and checked their phones, just minutes away from a cocktail reception. Others applauded heartily at the end. Perhaps the exercise provided a clue to how their new president might define the College Board’s mission. Or perhaps it was just a good read.

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