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New York City
October 2003

Gaston Caperton, College Board President, Tests the Writing Waters
by Joan Baum, Ph.D.

Talking about writing, which he calls the “neglected R,” Gaston Caperton, the former Governor of West Virginia and head of the College Board, says it is his number-one priority. Of course, he knows that communication skills are hardly ignored in the nation’s schools, and he acknowledges the many (critics might say superfluity or redundancy of) theories, approaches, programs, and experts already out there addressing the need for proficiency in correctness and thinking skills. But he also recognizes that something “has not yet kicked in,” in moving expeditiously on this need. The fact is that despite the existence of “best practices” nation-wide, and an identification of effective methods and master teachers, somehow the successes have not been adequately publicized or integrated with other disciplines in wider movements toward reform, particularly regarding assessment and standards. “Writing must be kept on the front burner,” the Governor says, and “better learning and teaching” supported—not just by funds for replication but by dissemination of strategies that work. Did the Governor want to identify any programs, teachers, grade-specific goals? He’d prefer not to, he says modestly, he’s not an education professional, but after a brief pause he cites homespun wisdom: “You do everything you can to help [students] learn as fast as they can.”

The College Board, charged with the mission of “preparing and inspiring kids to go to college,” is in an ideal position through its administration of the SAT and AP and its National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools and Colleges, he says, to implement the Leave No Child Behind movement. If the exams can be introduced as motivation as early as grade 6, say, then more children could participate in this kind of consciousness raising, and testing could be more closely tied to curricula and used as an incentive to learning. Certainly, the recent news of the Gates Foundation’s award to the College Board to create schools with emphases on AP courses—“the gold standard” in the assessment movement, the Governor says—should aid these efforts.

The College Board, a century-old national, not-for-profit educational organization, began as a response to the need to standardize examinations for ivy league schools, each of which had its own assessments, but it was only after World War II and the influx of students going to college on the G.I. Bill, that the SAT program was put into effect and then, in the 50s, the AP program. With eight regional offices throughout the country, a main branch in New York City and a technology center in Reston, Virginia, the College Board is the nation’s most powerful arbiter of education innovation, including superintending the standardized exams and providing support for teachers. This past summer alone, Governor Caperton points out, 30,000 to 40,000 teachers participated in Board-sponsored teacher training sessions.

In discussing the Board’s recent Writing Commission report, which clearly indicates that America’s schoolchildren are falling behind, the Governor is quick not to assign blame. “Students have to spend more time at task,” he notes, “teachers must be better trained, and financial and technological support must be forthcoming.” The new writing-intensive SAT, to go into effect in 2005, will be a great stride in the right direction. Gone will be the familiar sections on verbal skills and analogies, to be replaced by integrated reading and writing components. “Critical reading is more than just reading, and verbal means more than speaking,” the Governor emphasizes. But what about all that criticism that the exams advantage the privileged who can afford tutoring? The Governor pauses but does not duck the bullet. If true, the gain is reportedly no more than 30 to 40 points, he says, whereas the real challenge before the Board is to eliminate the difference between inferior and superior schools and bring equal opportunity to all.#

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