ANALYSIS: Client Profile - ETS' latest test is educating the public on all it offers

The ETS is more than just the SATs. But as publicizing its role in many legislative and regulatory issues has proven tough, it has taken a proactive stance in telling its whole story.

The ETS is more than just the SATs. But as publicizing its role in many legislative and regulatory issues has proven tough, it has taken a proactive stance in telling its whole story.

This week, 18-year-olds all over are restless, checking the mail with nervous anticipation each day after school. Those who receive thick envelopes from the colleges at which they hope to spend the next four years will be tingling with joy. And those who get the flimsy letters advising them to pursue their education elsewhere will likely direct their anger and frustration not at the admissions officers who rejected them, but at a common enemy: the Student Aptitude Test (SAT), and its creator, the Educational Testing Service (ETS).

Most American high school students spend weeks studying for the SAT, which sometimes, along with good grades and involvement in school activities, is enough to get them into the best colleges. For others, the time and effort put into studying - not to mention the money spent on Kaplan and Princeton Review tutoring - simply aren't enough to earn a score that impresses a particular admissions officer. And because the SAT is perceived as the major obstacle between high school and college, ETS is a magnet for criticism.

Much of that dismay, however, is misguided, particularly because ETS, a nonprofit, simply creates the test according to standards set by the College Board, an association of over 4,200 colleges and universities, high schools, and other educational bodies. The ETS-College Board relationship is essentially that of vendor and customer, just as it is with all the other institutions and associations for which ETS researches and creates tests - more than 50, in fact, ranging from teacher certification in 35 states to the Test of English as a Foreign Language (a.k.a. TOEFL).

Educating the public about ETS

"We have a vast array of products,

says Leslie Francis, VP of communications and public affairs for ETS, and former White House deputy chief of staff in the Carter administration. "The people who do know of ETS think of it almost exclusively in terms of the SAT. They don't think of the whole range of assessment that we sell and provide."

Francis, along with his communications staff, is looking to change that by focusing on two inextricably linked long-term goals. First, to show that ETS is constantly working to eliminate both bias and the possibility for misuse of its tests. And second, lobbying Capitol Hill to emphasize the importance of measuring with standardized tests.

These efforts began with the recent consolidation of several communications departments. The entities brought together include internal and external communications, marketing, the state and federal relations office, and library services. This reason was, according to Francis, because "there needed to be a much more aggressive effort to generate new business, which meant that we needed to have a more vigorous PR effort. We needed to step up our activities on the legislative and regulatory front to create new business opportunities. We're determined to make ETS a major player on educational reform on the federal and state levels - specifically, standards reform and accountability."

But becoming a "major player

in education, first and foremost, has to involve people believing in the integrity and value of ETS' products.

"Standardized tests are the target of a lot of criticism,

says Francis.

"It's sometimes valid if people aren't careful about how the tests are constructed and administered, and how the results are used."

That's pretty much always been ETS' position, along with the stance that the SAT should not be the sole element upon which college applicants are judged. (This is also what most, if not all universities claim as well.) But only recently has ETS been aggressive about telling that story.

Working with the media

"It's fair to say that ETS' posture, as related to PR, historically has been a reactive one,

says Francis. "We answered questions from reporters when questions came in. Now, we're stepping up our efforts."

Primarily, those efforts involve showcasing public belief in the need for standardized testing through various surveys, as well as publicizing ETS' own self-evaluation. Recently, ETS invited reporters to interview test developers, which, in the past, occurred rarely, if ever. "We've had reporters do 'day in the life of a test developer' pieces,

explains Tom Ewing, director of external communications.

But putting ETS' message in ink hasn't stopped there. "We have publications that explain how our tests are developed, and the processes they go through,

Ewing says. Last year, ETS also published a series of advertorials on education reform and the value of testing in major newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, with more planned in the coming weeks.

Despite ETS' efforts, criticism of the SAT still comes fast and furious.

The University of California released a study in late 2001 showing that the SAT, when compared to all other indicators used to evaluate candidates' prospects for being successful college students, is by far the least valuable or accurate tool. The press ran wild with the story, claiming that the university was considering dropping the SAT as a requirement for admission.

ETS remained quiet as the story broke; the College Board commissions the SAT, so it is also responsible for defending it (ETS even refused to comment on the issue for this article). Furthermore, the threat of California abandoning the SAT was wide of the mark. The study simply concluded that the university should consider using a new test that more clearly predicts how a student will perform in college, such as one that incorporates elements found in the SAT and SAT II exams. More importantly, should the need for such a test be confirmed, ETS will get the job of creating it.

Broadening its reach

ETS is also on the lookout for bigger jobs, which is where the recent escalation of its lobbying efforts comes in. Most recently, ETS pushed hard for President Bush's No Child Left Behind bill last year, which involves testing every student in grades three through eight.

"We supported the legislation generally,

Francis says, "but there was a specific attempt by some of our competitors

- and there are several, as the assessment market is a $50 billion industry worldwide - "to strip out a test we configure in elementary and high schools that measures math and reading skills. They wanted it out of the bill because we own the contract. If you don't have a single national confirmatory device, other companies can sell both state and national tests. But then, how do you compare State A to State B? You'd constantly be comparing apples and oranges."

ETS' lobbying efforts paid off, as the item in question was kept in the bill; ETS will develop the tests for evaluating the progress of American public education.

But it wasn't all about retaining contracts and beating out the competition, claims Francis. Since ETS is a nonprofit, he explains, "we plow our net back into research and development, and new products. We take seriously the social mission that we have to improve the quality of, and access, to education."

And in doing so, it still comes down to those who commission, administer, and take the tests believing in what they are intended to measure. The way to do that, Francis contends, is "to show there's not bias in the tests or interpretation of the results. We must do that. We must be totally forthcoming in that, because the more the public knows, the better off we are."

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