High Schools Have a Cow Over College Board Stickers

cowThe College Board is known for many things, but a sense of humor is not one of them. So Gretchen G. Parks was surprised when the nonprofit organization sent her three dozen cow stickers.

On Wednesday morning, Ms. Parks, director of college counseling at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., received an envelope containing a letter. “Dear educator,” it said. “Your students participated in the PSAT/NMSQT, along with 3.6 million other students, and had a great time taking the test. Please help distribute these stickers, and thank you! Sincerely, The College Board.”

This made Ms. Parks chuckle. “I don’t think any of my students would classify it as a great time,” she said.

The envelope she received also contained three sheets of multicolored cartoon-cow stickers, each printed with the words “Gee Whiz.” At first, Ms. Parks suspected a hoax. For one thing, the acorn logo on the letter didn’t match the one on another mailing she had just received from the College Board.

By mid-morning Ms. Parks was online, reading posts from other counselors who also had received the stickers. Some speculated that a mysterious third party had mailed them. (One counselor said that she had called the College Board, and that someone there had told her the organization hadn’t sent them.) A bovine brouhaha was born.

Alas, the mystery was short-lived. On Wednesday afternoon, a College Board spokeswoman confirmed that the nonprofit organization had, in fact, sent the stickers to approximately 23,000 high schools across the country. The mailings, she said, were timed to coincide with the release of students’ PSAT scores: “We took the opportunity to have a little fun here.”

OK, but—a breathless nation wants to know—why cows?

In October students who had taken the PSAT took to social media to discuss their experiences (great stuff here and here). Many mentioned (and some mocked) a cow-related question on the critical-reading portion of the test: Passage 2 on the Wednesday version of the fall PSAT concerned “the claim that legions of modern children have never seen a cow.” On the same version of the test, Passage 1 included the words “gee whiz,” a phrase test takers gleefully zapped into cyberspace.

The College Board’s goal, the spokeswoman said, was to “recognize the student experience” while reminding them of the organization’s free college-planning resources. The back of each sticker bears a message that includes the following: “Who would have thought cows could be so inspiring? We hope that the PSAT is always this fun.”

As for that logo discrepancy Ms. Parks noticed? The College Board plans to phase out the traditional right-leaning acorn in favor of the upright acorn that appeared on the letter to counselors.

Reactions to the cow campaign varied. Some counselors have praised the College Board for injecting some levity into the realm of testing. Others have questioned whether cow references would make any sense to students who had taken a different version of the test.

On the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s online forum, a counselor from New Jersey who hadn’t received the letter posted a complaint: “How do I explain to my low-income first-generation college kids why they didn’t get the cute cow stickers that are being posted all over Instagram and Twitter?” (She need not worry, it seems; the College Board said every school with PSAT takers would receive the stickers by the end of next week.)

Ms. Parks wasn’t quite sure what to make of the College Board’s mass mailing. “This is really out of character for them,” she said. “For them to be spending money on something like this is … disturbing.” No, she does not plan to pass the stickers out to her students.

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