Richard Phelps Weighs In on College Board Natural Selection Racket


Inspired by Nonpartisan Education Review founder and editor Richard Phelps’ exploration of the education testing system, I decided to ring him up for comment about the College Board natural selection racket.  Phelps worked for almost a decade in various roles at key testing organizations, including ACT, Inc.; ETS (Educational Testing Service); Pearson.  I was particularly fascinated by Phelps’ article:  “Does College Board Deserve Public Subsidies?”.   Phelps’ critical analysis of College Board on the heels of an open letter to College Board by “Scholars Concerned About Advanced Placement History,” opposing the rewriting of history in the AP US History framework, kept pressure on College Board to compromise—which it now has.         

Richard Phelps is an education policy and education testing expert, and self-described “raker of muck.”  Originally from the Midwest, Phelps has worked as a specialist in public administration in Chile (US-Chile Fulbright Commission) and in Paris at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, as founding coordinator for the World Education Indicators Programme, establishing data collection protocols and coordinating international conferences.

He has been a tireless public champion. To scratch the surface—Phelps was a math and science teacher in West Africa for two years; Congressional District Coordinator in Indiana for “Bread for the World” for five years; and a cook throughout the Bush I years at one of America’s most treasured institutions, Meals on Wheels—all volunteer positions.  

Since 2017, Phelps’ interest has been primarily the Nonpartisan Education Group he founded, a nonprofit organization based in Asheville, North Carolina.  Prior to Nonpartisan Education Group, Phelps was director of research at The Association of Boarding Schools; assessment & analytics consultant at Hunter College; and assessments director at Washington D.C. public schools.  But his work as an education research analyst began more than four decades ago.

Awards and fellowships include: Kennedy Fellow, Harvard School of Government; Morganthau Fellowship, Wharton School of Commerce and Finance; Fulbright Scholar; Doctoral Scholarship Award, National Center for Education Statistics; External Education Expert (on Standarized Testing) for the Learning Scientists; Fellow, Psychophysics Laboratory (partial list). 

Richard Phelps has a PhD in Public Policy from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, an MPP in Public Policy from Harvard University, an MA in history from Indiana University Bloomington, and BA in history from Washington University in St. Louis.

While Phelps is in favor of educational testing, he’s a serious critic of the education establishment’s approach to it—as our conversation about College Board reveals.

Suzan Mazur: For nearly a decade, from 2000-2009, you worked inside various testing agencies including: ACT, Inc., as director of policy research; Pearson, as manager of technical reports; and ETS (Educational Testing Service), as a research fellow. We know that ETS and College Board are tied at the hip.  College Board is a public charity. Is ETS a public charity?

Richard Phelps:  ETS is a non-profit.  Yes.  But ETS and College Board are not as tied at the hip as they used to be.

Suzan Mazur: ETS administers tests for College Board, its biggest client. Was that the case when you were at ETS?

Richard Phelps:  Yes.  They still do a lot of work together, but, again, not as much as they used to. When David Coleman took over in 2012 at College Board as CEO, he and his senior colleagues decided to develop the items for the SAT themselves rather than hire ETS to do it. That had a deleterious effect on the volume of items College Board had available as well as the quality of the items.

Suzan Mazur:  Over the last decade or so, scientists relying on evidence arrived at through increasingly sophisticated microscopy and myriad other technologies have come to regard Darwinian natural selection as metaphorical—as a fairy tale of sorts, not to be taken literally as it was for a century and a half following Darwin’s publication of  On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.


Evolutionary science has deepened.  However, College Board continues to put “iron bands” around the brains of America’s youth and its teachers by dictating in its biology course and testing framework that the Darwinian theory of natural selection is “the major mechanism of evolution.”  It gives 24 pages to natural selection in its most recent AP Biology course and exam framework.  In doing so, College Board, with its extensive reach, is retarding science and manipulating science education across the board. Even though, as Carl Woese told me in an October 2012 interview (taped, reviewed for accuracy by Woese, first published two months before he died December 30, 2012): 

“Science must be free to examine what it sees.  If you’re going to say everyone must follow the Darwinian line, that’s not free science.” — “Carl Woese, Evolution’s Golden Revolutionary

Evolution is the bedrock of our civilization.  Why then is College Board warping evolutionary science education?

Richard Phelps:  I don’t have a background in biology, but there is a problem with the AP exams in that they tend to side with whomever is in power at the time.

Suzan Mazur:  It’s profit-driven.

Richard Phelps:  In the education establishment.  Right.  Whatever is the favored point of view of the powers that be in the education establishment is what College Board chooses for its curriculums for the AP exams. 

I’m more familiar with history because I was a history major in college. You can see that there are choices made as to what version of history is taught.  It’s been quite controversial.  AP US History was the first exam that College Board tried to update after David Coleman took over and it changed the content substantially.  Quite a hubbub ensued.  I’m not a biologist, but there are choices made.

Suzan Mazur:  There are a significant number of bankers and titans of industry on the boards that advise and govern the education course and testing system in this country.

Richard Phelps:  Board members could be chosen to represent diverse points of view or they can be chosen to support the preferred point of view of the power. My impression from observations about College Board in recent years is that it has chosen the latter, it’s chosen people who support its preferred point of view rather than diverse points of view.

Suzan Mazur:  Who does the choosing?  David Coleman is chosen by the board of trustees.  Who chooses the board of trustees?

Richard Phelps:  I have addressed this in the article, “Does College Board Deserve Public Subsidies?,” noting “board members are elected, but most of them off nomination lists compiled by College Board’s upper management.”

It’s a convoluted process.  It’s a multi-step process.  It involves nominally all the members of the College Board, which is thousands of higher education institutions.  It’s so constricted, however, that the possibility of a representative sample of all points of view or all colleges in America being represented on the board is slim.  It’s very selective.

Suzan Mazur: College Board’s extensive affiliations appear to enable it to game the system. And at public expense, as you’ve detailed in your article.  All of these thousands of educational organizations are supporting College Board’s efforts.

Richard Phelps:  Right.

Suzan Mazur:  Again, when it comes to biology, College Board is not measuring up to the standards acceptable to the professional scientific community based on the evidence. So the question is:  Is this an intentional hoodwinking for profit, is this negligence, or is this ignorance on the part of College Board?  What are your thoughts?

Richard Phelps:  It could be all the above.  There often is a difference in the perspective toward a particular curriculum between those within education, say in education schools, the teachers who teach biology education, science education—and on the other hand, the professors in science, the laboratory workers, the experimenters in science.  College Board tends to side with the education people, and if that differs from the evidence in the scientific community—well that’s too bad.

Suzan Mazur:  Really?  But it’s the scientific evidence that counts, that’s what should be reflected in the course and exam. 

Do you blame David Coleman for this catastrophe with College Board’s biology framework—the promotion of and testing for outdated science? Should heads roll at College Board?

Richard Phelps: I think David Coleman was not qualified for the College Board job.  David Coleman had no background in testing and measurement. 

Suzan Mazur:  His degrees are in philosophy and English.

Richard Phelps: Right.

Suzan MazurColeman’s mother was president of Bennington College and dean of the New School. So David Coleman’s got serious connections in education.  His father’s a psychiatrist.

Richard Phelps:  Right.  However, he gained most of his power when Bill Gates decided to fund Common Core [when Coleman was point man there].

Suzan Mazur:  So do you think heads should roll at College Board?

Richard Phelps:  I think the senior management is pretty safe with the governance structure College Board has. Their heads should have rolled a few years ago after a number of fiascoes.  I identify some of them in my article cited earlier. 

College Board administered one exam overseas twice, the same exam.  The cheaters on the Internet advertised that fact. The test didn’t have enough items.  The principal person in charge of developing the exam became a whistleblower saying the test wasn’t valid.  College Board went after him. There were a number of fiascoes.  These were largely a result of David Coleman not knowing what he was doing.

Suzan Mazur: What do you know about Educational Testing Service chief Walt MacDonald, who’s an ecologist?  The ETS web page credits MacDonald with “redesigning” College Board’s Advanced Placement biology curriculum and exam.  Would you say it’s time for MacDonald to move on?

Richard Phelps:  I don’t know MacDonald. 

Suzan Mazur: The person identified in College Board’s literature as director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the most recent AP Biology course and exam framework, i.e., in charge of development, is Catherine E. Walsh.  She has a BA in biology from Florida Atlantic University.  Would you say that qualifies her for the job?

Richard Phelps:  I’m not familiar with her either.

Suzan Mazur:  How often are these testing frameworks updated?

Richard Phelps:  Well, that’s a point of dispute.  Some people say not often enough.  Others would say they shouldn’t update them because it’s so controversial that it doesn’t seem worth it.  Progressives would say you need to update. 

Suzan Mazur:  But it’s a fraud that’s going on with College Board pushing Darwinian natural selection as the major mechanism of evolution when the evidence does not support it and the scientific community for more than a decade advising that natural selection is merely a metaphor, not to be taken literally. 

Royal Society - Public Evolution Summit - Amazon cover

Scientists lecturing at the Royal Society Evolution Summit in 2016 were cautioned onstage by Sir Pat Bateson, one of the meeting’s organizers, about using the metaphor of natural selection.  Natural selection was effectively decommissioned in the pages of the New York Review of Books by Richard Lewontin in 2010, who wrote “biologists should stop referring to natural selection,” saying further that the term was never meant to be taken literally by generations of scientists.  And it’s been debunked by Eugene Koonin and a litany of other major evolutionary thinkers, with Koonin advising in 2017 that “no one in the mainstream scientific community now takes selection literally.”

Richard Phelps:  It was just a couple of years ago that College Board tried to redesign the AP US History exam and there was so much pushback that I wouldn’t be surprised if that set College Board back on its heels making it more reluctant to update other exams.  College Board did eventually compromise as a result of the pushback regarding history.

Suzan Mazur:  But College Board has not publicly addressed criticism of its fraudulent AP biology course and exam framework.  My recent article:  “College Board  & The Natural Selection Racket” has had impact and was widely circulated.  I made a point of sending the article to members of College Board’s board of trustees and its AP Biology committee as well. I received one response from the two groups.  The emailer is a college biology professor who was on the AP Biology committee.  Here are a few of his moronic comments:

“Dear Ms. Mazur,

Thank you for sending me the link to your website. I read through it and tied [sic] to follow the point you were making. I gather that you are some sort of evolution denier, and your website appears to imply that College Board has a commercial interest in promoting the evolution as fact? . . . .The panel of scientists and educators who devised the course curriculum and who draft the exam are highly qualified professionals in Biology.”

He concludes with this postscript—

“I am sure you are aware that Eugene Koonin is not a credible source and that citing an unverified personal correspondence with Karl [sic] Woese – who most certainly accepts evolution as fact – out of context is irresponsible.”

For the record, the emailer’s H-index (quality, quantity and impact of scientific publications) is 35.  Eugene Koonin’s is 206 and rising—Koonin is in the top 50 on the H-index of scientists living and dead.  Einstein’s H-index is 200. 

Richard Phelps: Condescension is one of the tools they like to use:

“I’m not going to talk to you.”  

Suzan Mazur: But the emailer’s a publicly funded scientist and College Board is a publicly funded organization.   They are responsible to the public, whether they like it or not.

Coleman is on the board of, in partnership with, or an advisor to various other influential organizations with regard to education, such as Bloomberg Philanthropies.  Bloomberg has also been partnering on education with the Aspen Institute—where Coleman has been a featured speaker.  And Bloomberg is partnering with Khan Academy, which is tied into College Board.  College Board is a sponsor of NAS’s (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine) Board on Science Education (BOSE); BOSE chief, Heidi Schweingruber, a psychologist/anthropologist co-developed the study resulting in the most recent K-12 science education framework. How does such cronyism favor profit and the promotion of outdated science?

Richard Phelps: It favors not so much corporate profit but the individual’s profit.  The more high level organizations one belongs to, the more money.  Some of these people who are in the in-groups collect three or four high level salaries.  This gives them lots of exposure. Their resumes look great.

Suzan Mazur:  Many of America’s school systems are supposedly “supported” by College Board.  College Board funnels funding to these school systems and the school systems then must follow the College Board program.  So it’s not really support, not about charity—it’s a quid pro quo.  School systems have to feed their students Darwinian natural selection dogma to get the funds.  Thus, students are prevented from learning what’s really going on in evolutionary science.  And the public is paying for this.

Richard Phelps: The public is not being informed of the whole picture.  Right.  People in power are often intolerant of evidence that does not confirm their preferred point of view.

Suzan Mazur: How can the public best confront the problem of College Board and its cronies manipulating, and in effect, coercing America’s youth to accept seriously outdated evolutionary science?

Richard Phelps:  It looks like there’s been a downturn in federal and state governments funding College Board programs that are advertised as being in the public interest, like scholarships to take AP exams, that sort of thing.

People can address the problem by lobbying their federal and/or state representatives to say: 

“Please do not fund these College Board programs.”

Suzan Mazur:  So Bloomberg steps in to accommodate College Board. . .  This issue belongs front and center in the US presidential debate.

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