NPR Story
4:13 pm
Fri March 7, 2014

College Board Enlists Khan Academy To Help Level SAT Playing Field

Originally published on Fri March 7, 2014 1:29 pm

The College Board has announced a new SAT that makes the essay component which was just added in 2005 optional. In a news release The College Board said that the writing test “has not contributed significantly to the overall predictive power of the exam.”

The board has also forged a new relationship with the free online tutorial service Khan Academy, in an attempt to create a level playing field for all students taking the SAT, regardless of income level.

Over the years, the SAT has gained the reputation of being a test that caters to students who can afford expensive prep courses and private tutors to teach them the tricks of exam.

Khan Academy is working with the College Board to create online tutorials so all students will have access to world class test prep.

Sal Khan, founder and executive director of Khan Academy, talks to Here & Now’s Robin Young about his new partnership with the College Board.

“What I want to stress is, this isn’t going to be just like ‘Oh, well if you can’t afford a few thousand dollars, here’s something for you,’” Khan says. “We are working with them — and they’ve never worked with anyone like this — to actually make the very best tools. And for us, that is interactive software that adapts to the student where they are.”

Guest

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Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. Tomorrow, thousands of students will sharpen their Number 2 pencils and sit down to fill in those bubbles on the SATs. We want to say good luck to all of you, and don't worry, we know plenty of people, no one we will name, who didn't do that well and still succeeded. And also we're sorry you missed the new test. We're referring to the changes announced this week, a major overhaul from the College Board.

Starting in 2016, the SATs will go from the current maximum score of 2,400 back to the score of 1,600. The essay, which was added in 2005, will now be optional, and instead of writing about their own experiences, students will have to analyze a passage. And students won't get points off for wrong answers, they'll only get points added for correct answers.

The College Board says they wanted the test more closely aligned with what kids are actually learning in school, and they want to level the playing field. And that brings us to our next guest. The SATs are now partnering with the nonprofit Khan Academy to create free online SAT test prep for students. Sal Khan, founder and executive director of the Khan Academy, joins us by Skype from his office in Mountain View, California. Sal, welcome back to HERE AND NOW.

SAL KHAN: Thank you. Good to be here.

YOUNG: And most people know Khan Academy, the free online tutoring program you officially launched in 2009 after years of helping family members with math tutoring, first by phone, eventually through videos you posted on YouTube. They became so popular you now have the Kan Academy. How many students in your virtual classroom now?

KHAN: We're reaching a little over 10 million unique students a month now.

YOUNG: Well, and many of them we know here, but the College Board president, David Coleman, said that the test has taken on the reputation of being based on privilege rather than merit. He wanted to widen it out so the kids who could afford to have tutoring - kids who couldn't afford to have the tutoring could have something. This brings in your service. What will you do?

KHAN: Yeah, and, you know, as you mentioned, the whole motivation for this is, you know, for decades the College Board has been administering the SAT and has kind of been turning kind of a blind eye to the idea that, well, a lot of middle-income and upper-middle-income students are able to afford expensive test prep. And there's at minimum the perception that it helps, and sometimes there might be a reality that it's helping, and that kind of goes against the underlying philosophy of the SAT, which is to be a true meritocracy.

And so the spirit of what we're building, and, you know, what I want to stress is this isn't going to be just like, oh well, if you can't afford a few thousand dollars, here's something for you. We are working with them, and they've never worked with anyone like this, to actually make the very best tools. And for us that is interactive software that adapts to the student where they are.

It's not going to be the traditional test prep where, hey, you've got the SAT in a month, well, if you don't know how to do exponents, here's some techniques for guessing. It'll be, well, if you don't know how to exponents, here's some - let's learn about exponents because that's the best way to perform. But at the same time we'll get you familiar with the types of items, the types of exercises.

And that's once again where we believe what we're going to create for students, the experiences we're going to create, are going to be far better than the expensive test prep because we're going to use actual SAT items, actual College Board items. They're going to share with us. They're going to vet the work we're doing. They're going to make sure that it is consistent with the spirit of the exam.

So it's going to be much, much more than just videos. It's going to be really state-of-the-art interactive software that diagnoses where a student is, gives tools for teachers and coaches and parents to also see how the student is performing and identify gaps that need to be filled in.

YOUNG: Well, let's - you know, people are applauding this, heralding it. But there's also been some criticism, as you're well aware. Some low-income students have limited access to computers. They may not have any online connectivity in their neighborhoods. And also there was a bit of a social media brushfire a couple years ago, you're well aware of this.

Some mathematicians from Grand Valley State University sat down to critique some of your videos, "Mystery Science Theater" style. And the criticism is that while your videos are great at giving demonstrations of the mechanical processes of math, they don't engage students in all the cognitive levels that they need to be to actually understand the underlying theories, that to do that you need teachers.

So address that. Do you worry that some kids might be using your videos sort of like video games, knock off a math problem, move on, and not really getting into some of the cognitive understanding of what it is that they made work by going through an example on a video?

KHAN: Right. Well, on the first issue of access, I think that's a legitimate concern, that right now only 70 percent of students have access to Internet at home. And with the College Board we hope to address - work with after-school programs, and obviously Internet and computer, they are penetrating homes fast. So hopefully over the next few years that will start to become more equitable.

On the kind of the content issue, you know, our belief is the main reason why we have been able to kind of, you know, get to scale with a lot of students is because we are very focused on the underlying conceptual fundamentals. Even when I started working with this on my cousins, I felt that they were too focused on formulas, too focused on process.

But, you know, myself and other folks I knew who had done well in math and science, we understood things at a deeper level, a little bit more holistically. And so that really is the spirit of what we try to do with Khan Academy. And that's why the College Board actually reached out to us, because they were tired of test prep being about just how do you do a problem, or how do you guess, or let's cram a formula.

They very seriously looked at our content, at our exercises and our software and were impressed by how much focus there was on the underlying ideas. Now, with that said, you know, software and exercises and dashboards and videos can only go so far. For some students it might be enough. But the ideal is, is to pair that with incredible mentors, teachers, coaches, parents, whoever it might be. And so that's why we have focused also so much on creating dashboards.

So if a student's working on Khan Academy, working at their own pace, their parent or their teacher or their coach can say, hey, OK, well, the system is saying that this student is struggling on negative exponents, or this student is struggling on fractions, I can go take them aside now and go even deeper and do things that obviously a computer would never be able to do.

YOUNG: Well, and to the criticism that there aren't teachers necessarily involved, you know, someone just goes online, as a lot of young people I know do, and try and do it at home, your concerned that - do you have concern, as others do, that Bill Gates, who helps fund you, has this dream or has expressed this dream that the Khan Academy might broaden out, might be more of a teaching tool than a tutoring tool?

You know, some people are worried that we may be relying too much on things like the Khan Academy to make up for what is lacking in so many especially low-income schools.

KHAN: Well, you know, I think - you know, one thing that, I mean in my interactions with Bill Gates is, you know, the one thing he always tells me is, well, you know, what you all are doing is great, but at the end of the day the number one thing is an incredible teacher in the room. And I agree with him. You know, everything we talk about, this isn't about - you know, when people imagine technology in a space, they start imagining Amazon.com versus Barnes and Noble, and just kind of, you know, one trying to replace the other.

But everything we do at Khan Academy is how do we empower the teacher. How do we allow them to cater to the individual needs of every student? How can we move - how can we allow that role to be an even higher value role so it's not so much about dissemination of information anymore, but it's much more about analyzing the data of where all of their students are, sitting down next to the students who are having difficulty, creating a culture in the classroom, doing higher-order projects and Socratic dialogue with students instead of focusing on homework review and lectures and whatever else.

So, you know, from day one, even when I was tutoring my cousins, Khan Academy was never about teacher replacement. It was all about teacher empowerment. I started off as working with my cousins, and I said I need a tool to figure out where they are. They need practice, but I need to see where are their gaps so that I can go deeper with them.

And so a lot of our effort has always been creating dashboards for teachers, tools for teachers, were used by 200,000 teachers who have decided to use us on their own. No one kind of forced them.

YOUNG: Sal Khan of the Khan Academy, now in a partnership with the College Board and the SATs. We'll look forward to seeing what comes from this, the videos that you come up with. Sal, thanks so much.

KHAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.