Conversation With Gaston Caperton, President, College Board
the trepidation and anxiety with which most high school students
view the College Board from afar—or from the vantage point
of a humble test taker confronting the ominous SATs—a visitor
somehow expected to find snapping alligators, snarling guard dogs,
or at the very least, a grim and forbidding entrance at the building
where the College Board is located.
Instead, there was a very welcoming and affable receptionist directing
visitors to the discreetly understated and corporate offices of
the College Board president, Gaston Caperton, former governor
of West Virginia, whose Southern roots were well in evidence in
his gracious demeanor and unstudied charm.
hope this organization is understood as a gateway, not a gate,"
said Caperton, who admitted that as a child he had himself suffered
with dyslexia. "The idea of the College Board is not to stand
in people's way, but to help them to go to college, to go to the
right college and be successful. Our mission is to serve young
people as they go to college. We want to prepare them and inspire
them. We're very sincere about our mission of equity and excellence."
He added, "I took this job because you impact education. The College
Board can provide things that no one else can, so that students
are better prepared to go to college, and help colleges and universities
find the students who are the right fit. Our equity and excellence
agenda is critical; it has to be available to everybody."
The organization, originally founded in 1900 when it was located
on the Columbia University campus, is a membership organization,
with some 4000 members from the ranks of the nation's colleges,
some high schools and school districts. Not surprisingly, those
at the New York headquarters pay careful and close attention to
what the organization's regional council members tell them.
Even last year's challenge to the College Board, when the president
of the California university system questioned the use of the
SAT in the admissions process, is one example of how Caperton
has responded to a crisis situation during his three-year service
with the organization.
College Board has consistently looked for ways to improve the
SATs," said Caperton. "California's challenge speeded up the process.
We put together the best team we could to work with the University
of California, to look at the ideas in more depth. The College
Board and the University of California learned a lot through that
conversation. The faculty at the university said that there were
three important things: one, that they need an admissions test;
two, that the tests are not biased, and three, that they wanted
to have a test that would evaluate writing. They thought that
writing should be part of the core competencies, that now are
verbal and math."
To Caperton, "the addition of writing is very important. The ability
to write is more critical in a technology-grounded world. If we
put writing in the SAT I, it would have an impact on writing in
Still, as such an influential and admittedly powerful organization,
change has to be measured. "The SAT has longitudinal data
that is very important to schools and colleges, as well as parents
and students," said Caperton. "We can't make such radical
changes to the test. And the test needs to have portability, so
that students applying to California can take a test in Iowa."
To those detractors and critics who assert that tests like the
SAT favor students who can afford to take pricey review courses,
or hire expensive tutors—or people like Stanley Kaplan, who has
founded a multi-national business on the premise that exams like
the SAT, GMAT, GRE, LSAT and others measure preparation more than
aptitude—Caperton is ready with his answer.
who practiced for anything does better than somebody who doesn't
practice," he said. "There have been 10 national studies, that
are recognized as well researched, that show that after the testing
courses, scores only go up 20 to 40 points. The SAT I is basically
what I would call a test of college competencies. To be successful
in college, you need to think in words and numbers. This is a
unique and effective examination that shows if students have developed
skills, and the ability to think and answer questions. And as
far as test prep is concerned, you can't stop people from taking
prep. The scores are only a small part of the admissions process.
You need the tests, because it's another way for colleges to look
at the grades from a school."
Caperton is well aware that the College Board's high visibility
makes it an easy target for critics.
you're the best at what you do, with products that are highly
visible, you're always going to be under a magnifying glass, whether
you're the president of the United States, the president of I.B.M.,
or the governor of a state," said Caperton.
are interested in helping schools with low ability," said Caperton.
One of the College Board's programs, in fact, provides $25,000
to schools to help them improve their performance; this month,
three schools˝in Boston, Fresno and Florida˝are being honored
for their improvement. As Caperton said, "The success of these
schools gives kids an opportunity."
Similarly, Caperton is a fierce proponent and defender of the
Advanced Placement program, proud of the fact that 57 percent
of the nation's high schools now offer an AP program.
Like others, Caperton credits the influence of significant mentors
in his life. First and foremost was his father, who gave him a
dictionary and taught him to memorize the words when he still
wasn't reading in fourth grade, due to dyslexia. Then, too, Caperton
said he was inspired by reading biographies of influential and
think we learn from anyone," said Caperton. "And anyone you learn
from is a mentor."
He cited the example of a disabled coal miner that he had met
while campaigning for the governorship of West Virginia, who spoke
to him about how much he missed his job when he could no longer
work because of his disability—an epiphany that made Caperton
realize that "all jobs are important to people."
Maintaining that kind of balanced perspective helps Caperton keep
his exalted position in perspective, an attitude that he would
like to communicate to many of the College Board's customers.
has a successful life because of high SATs," Caperton contends.#
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