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The Q&A: David Coleman and Sal Khan

In this week's Q&A, we interview David Coleman, the president of the College Board, and Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy.

Sal Khan (l.), founder of Khan Academy, and David Coleman, president of the College Board

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here are this week's subjects:

David Coleman is the president of the College Board and Sal Khan is the founder of Khan Academy. Earlier this month, the College Board launched a new version of the SAT. One of the major changes to the SAT is how students prepare for the test. Now they can access free personalized SAT prep online through the Khan Academy because of a new partnership with the College Board.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: How is SAT prep different now that it’s online and free to use?

Sal Khan: Back in the day, if you want to prepare for a standardized test, you had two options.

You could go buy a book that would have some practice questions in it ... and then you have the other parties who would create these questions that weren’t the actual questions on the test.

You would have that or you would pay a couple thousand dollars and spend your summer in one of these coaching classes that would try to teach you these tricks and whatever else.

At the end of the day, they may have made you a little bit more familiar with the test. They may have made you guess a little bit better every now and then. They might have been able to pick up your speed. But they weren’t really about teaching. They weren’t really about helping you learn the material you needed to learn for the test.

What’s exciting about this opportunity that we're doing with the College Board is this is about real learning. So when a student goes to Khan Academy, they’ll take a diagnostic. It’s starting to know what they know and don’t know.

All of these items were done in conjunction with the College Board. They vetted them. It’s as close as you can get to the actual items that people will see on the SAT. And it adapts to you.

It’s almost like having a personal tutor, but a personal tutor who has perfect knowledge of an unlimited number of questions and also the frequency of the questions and what they look like on the actual SAT.

A lot of students we talk to describe it like a game that keeps them motivated. But, in a strange way, it helps them learn, get college ready and frankly do well on the SAT.

Trib+Edu: So if I’m a student and I do really well in all of the sections, but in the math section I completely bomb it, the software will give me more math questions, right?

Khan: That’s exactly right.

If you’re one of the four million 10th graders who took the PSAT in October or November, you can now go to Khan Academy, type in your code ... all of the diagnostic data from the PSAT will be slurped into Khan Academy.

Khan Academy software ... will immediately know, “Yes, you’re really good at that type of reading comprehension package, but you’re weak at this type. So I’m going to give you more of those. You’re really strong at this concept in math, but you’re weak at this concept in math. Not only is that something frequent on the SAT, but it’s a very important skill to being college ready so you’ll get to see more of that.”

David Coleman: The PSAT becomes the beginning of practice. It’s not a practice test, but the beginning of practice because why should you assess someone unless you’re going to help them?

The deep thing that Khan adds is sometimes you do poorly on an exam, like the PSAT, because you missed something you missed something early in math, and the Khan Academy resources go all the way back to arithmetic.

While it may sound humble, a misunderstanding of something early, like fractions, is often what underlies kids later in proportional reasoning and things like that. With Khan Academy rather than the PSAT becoming this wall you can’t climb over … it says, “Here’s where you need a hand. Here’s where you’re strong.”

We at the College Board think that assessment without opportunity is dead. It’s not OK any longer to simply give kids tests.

By partnering with Khan Academy, what we can do is transform assessments from a gate or sorting mechanism to an invitation to students to practice and address their strengths. What we already see from our data is a much wider range of students going for it.

Khan: We’re so used to the tests telling me if I’m smart or not. It’s telling me if I know the material or not. But what he said is the PSAT is being the launch point for your practice.

The exact phrase is assessment without opportunity is dead. That’s a huge, huge statement.

We shouldn’t assess you and make you feel bad or good about yourself. It should be assessment of where you are and this is how we’re going to take you to the next place. That is a completely new phenomenon, especially when you think of it at the scale we’re thinking of.

Coleman: Texas has a wonderful tradition of working hard and earning your future. What I love is the embrace of Khan Academy here in Texas because it so fits with the great values of this state.

In Texas, we’ve seen a backlash to assessment without opportunity. You’ve seen the frustration of parents who say their kids are getting over tested. What I think we’ve been under delivering on is we're giving large scale assessments without large scale opportunity.

The big idea here is that over a million students have engaged with Khan Academy. That is, we estimate, more than four times than all of commercial test prep combined in our first year. At every level of income — from the richest to the poorest — this is something where more kids are doing it than paying for commercial test prep.

Another aspect of Texas that’s really important is the deep importance of the rural community … We’re worried about kids in the cities, but we’re also worried about the fate of kids who are in more distant communities. What Khan Academy offers us is a chance to offer the best resources to kids in rural environments.

Think about the way it used to be: Only if you live in the city can you have access, even if you have the money to pay for the test prep. But what if you’re not in a city? … I think we’re really changing that. In a state like this, which has rich urban centers but also has rich rural and semi-rural environments, it’s really promising.

Trib+Edu: You helped shape Common Core, how did that experience influence the new SAT?

Coleman: While that was my background as I transitioned to the College Board, I learned an incredible new thing, which is states that haven’t adopted Common Core, like Texas and Virginia for example, they revised their college and career ready standards. They emphasize certain core things.

In Texas, it’s important to be able to read using evidence, and that’s a real priority not only in your reading standards but also history standards.

What the SAT focuses on is not a particular set of standards ... So no one has to be worried that if they’re not in a Common Core state, if they’re a homeschooling family or if they’re at a Catholic school.

The good news is that the SAT is not specifically attached to a specific body of standards, but is rather focused on a few things that resonate in any set of college ready standards … It would not be right for a student with a particular set of standards to have an advantage on a test like this. Your aim is different. Your aim is to make an exam that’s highly public.

Trib+Edu: What does the prep and the test say about the future of education?

Coleman: This is a country that, if it finds a way to tap into the reservoirs of talent we have with kids, more kids can understand and relate it to the tools of practice and see how it takes them somewhere. We can find them with the right time, the right coaches and advice. I think we would have so many more kids performing at a high level.

The other thing that it says is that there are many bright low-income kids who today don’t take advantage of the opportunities they earn. One thing we found in our data set is that if you’re in the top 10 percent of SAT scorers but in the bottom quarter of income, half of those kids don’t apply to a selective college.

They’ve earned the right. They’ve done the hard work. They’ve defied poverty. But they don’t know how to do that.

Now what we do is that we send all of these kids a personalized packet and four fee waivers to apply to college to invite them to apply more broadly. We constantly text them, urge them to expand their future.

I think the future of education in America is to begin to repair that opportunity ladder, to begin to give many more people the skills to move from where they were born to where they can go.

Khan: The notion of your potential to succeed has been dependent on: Where were you born? What city do live in? What did your parents do? What is your income level? Even if you did go to a good school, who’s the teacher you got? There’s a whole set of variables.

You get through the system, and it’s not mastery-based so you keep getting pushed ahead. Gaps build in your knowledge. At some point, you get to an algebra class and you’ve forgotten your negative numbers and all of a sudden nothing makes sense.

The universe that we’re trying to build together is where any student at any time, if they have a gap in their knowledge, they can address that gap.

(The SAT prep) is the largest personalized learning implementation on the planet. Eighty percent of American students have taken the diagnostic ... What you can do with that is just unlimited.

In my own mind, I see this phase as actually a transitional phase for where we could all go in 10 years, where we’re really able to holistically look at a student and measure much more about them. (Students’) scores on a certain day are important, but the narrative of how they got there, their passion and portfolios of work are equally important.

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