Sal Khan burst on the education scene in 2010, as thousands watched his videos and Bill Gates declared Khan was his “favorite” teacher. Since then, the mission of the Khan Academy has been breathtakingly ambitious: To provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.
More recently, Khan also took aim at a narrower but equally provocative goal: Get anyone ready to pass the SAT, also for free. Yet the most challenging question of all may be this: What might Khan’s support of SAT prep truly disrupt: the test-prep business? What about the role of standardized tests altogether?
Everyone agrees there’s never been a better time to disrupt the test-prep world. Families, both in the U.S. and abroad, are pouring billions of dollars to ready students for what have been gatekeeper tests. But that doesn’t make anyone happy.
In recent years, critiques of standardized tests, and particularly the SAT, have grown increasingly sharp. The New York Times summed up the attitude of students, educators, admissions officers and parents toward the existing SAT by labeling it as “hated.” Reuters this week published a deep analysis of how groups outside the U.S. have compromised the old tests, calling the use of purloined test questions as corrosive—and widespread—in test prep as doping in professional cycling. As a result, a growing number of colleges and universities are telling students that standardized test results are not required for their college applications.
None of that is news to the College Board, which began considering how to revise the SAT in late 2012 to better align the exam with what students learn in school. Although it’s a nonprofit, creating and administering standardized tests involves big dollars for the College Board: in 2014 the organization reported that total revenues for everything it does—including administration of the SAT—clocked in at $813 million.
As the College Board worked to build a better exam, it aimed to change what it saw as two endemic problems: First, that “studying for SAT” didn’t help students learn much other than how to take standardized tests. And that because such “test prep” could make a huge difference in students’ outcomes, those who could afford pricey preparation or tutoring services had a significant advantage over students who could not.
“So the College Board said, ‘When we launch the new SAT, we want it to come with test prep—but not like it’s usually conceptualized,’” Sal Khan shares in an interview with EdSurge. Instead, he adds, “Students should get familiar with the test, but we wanted to do it in a way so that students could learn skills that will make them more college-ready.”
College Board CEO David Coleman adds that he and his team also wanted to take the “shame out of remediation” when it came to standardized test prep, saying “I think that the climate around assessment and test prep in America has become toxic and self-destructive.”
Khan Academy emerged as a natural complement in this process, Coleman says, given its open approach to education. So, the College Board partnered with Khan Academy, which had already been working on ways to help students become proficient in Common Core through efforts such as its math “missions.”
“We’re not assuming that everything is practice,” Khan says. “We want to help people learn new skills.” In Khan’s math missions, for instance, as students work through problems, the program adaptively serves up increasingly difficult levels of exercises, Khan says.
By creating a tight partnership with the College Board, Khan can (with student permission) get access to students’ PSAT test scores and use those as a starting point for assessing what subjects a student needs to better understand. “One of the things I’m excited about is using the PSAT results,” Khan says. Although 80 percent of students take the PSAT/NMSQT, 5 percent learn they did well enough to qualify as National Merit semifinalists “and the others are told nothing,” Khan says. Syncing with PSAT results turns that test into a diagnostic, he observed. (Students can alternatively take short diagnostics on Khan as well.)
Would Khan ever charge for access to its SAT test-prep work, something that’s become a lucrative business for many other organizations? “No. No. It’s axiomatic here. There should never be a money gate between the user and learning,” Khan insists, adding that his company has received support from philanthropies and the College Board, both monetary and in-kind.
“But [our work] has got to be free.”
Khan also says that his organization aims to be scrupulous in how it uses the data about students’ work. “One of the reasons why I wanted to be a nonprofit is that if you have some pressure from some bottom line, the temptation could be there to do shady things. And a core principle of ours is that we absolutely would never do anything with commercial shadiness [such as] selling or marketing the data. It’s off limits entirely. If we use it internally, our goal is only to use that data in ways that improve the student experience.”
Khan says that any students who want to remove their data from his system would have to contact his organization directly. “There isn’t a press-the-button way to do it,” he notes, “but we’d do that if someone requested it.”
If Khan Academy becomes seen as an effective way to prepare students to take the SAT, it could have a deeply disruptive impact on the test-prep business.
“We wanted [our SAT prep] to be a game changer,” Khan says, and data based on how students prepared for the March 2016 SAT suggest that it is already having an impact. The Khan Academy says that it had a million unique users of its “Official SAT Practice” leading up to the March 2016 SAT test. Of those who took the SAT and said they used Khan Academy's lessons to prepare, usage was fairly evenly distributed across different racial backgrounds. For instance, 68 percent of Asian students who took the SAT said they used the Official SAT Practice to prepare for the tests, followed by 65 percent of African-American students, 61 percent of Hispanic students, and 60 percent of white students surveyed. All told, the College Board reports that 460,000 students took the redesigned March exam.
And from Coleman’s perspective, the College Board is doing its part, too, to level barriers that inhibit students from a broader swath of backgrounds from going to the top universities. "[We found that] if you’re in the top 10 percent of SAT scorers, but in the lowest socioeconomic group, there’s a 50 percent chance you don’t apply to college," Coleman told EdSurge. Now, the College Board provides low-income students with fee waivers to apply to school.
Yet are these changes deep enough? Will they help students learn and prepare for college?
“As long as more people want to go to a college than there are seats, there will be admissions ‘gates,’” Khan observes. “The key question is whether those gates are fair and look at the potential of the whole person. Standardized tests, like grades, essays, recommendations, extracurriculars or portfolios provide information on one dimension of a student's potential. Taken individually, each of these are imperfect measures, but put together admissions officers find them useful.”
“Focusing on the SAT, I think that anything we can do to make that measure more fair and equitable the better,” he says.
Coleman agrees, expressing fervent support of Khan’s philosophies, and adding that he plans to leverage his connections to bring a steady flow of funding into Khan Academy’s nonprofit bank account. That way, Khan can focus on continuing to support open education and keep all test prep materials free.
“I believe that one of the most important things we can do as a College Board is to make Khan Academy enduring,” he says.