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New York City
June 2002

A Conversation With Gaston Caperton, President, College Board
By Merri Rosenberg

Given 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.

"I 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.

"The 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 this nation."

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.

"Anybody 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.

"If 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.

"We 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 significant individuals.

"I 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.

"Nobody has a successful life because of high SATs," Caperton contends.#

 

Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email: ednews1@aol.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2002.


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