Walter MacDonald


Walt MacDonald is the new president and chief executive officer of Educational Testing Service, for which he had been its executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Benoit Cortet

Asked to consider the early influences on one’s job success, most people reflect on some hazy atmosphere of inspiration at home or college. Walter MacDonald, the new president and chief executive officer of Educational Testing Service (ETS), casts back to one specific classroom at Rutgers University–Camden, and the marine biology professor who presided over it.

MacDonald CCAS’74, GSNB’83, who runs the $1.6 billion standardized testing company best known for administering the College Board’s Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), credits James B. Durand with teaching him how to make decisions. MacDonald has used that approach nearly every day since during his long career at ETS.

“He taught me an appreciation for the scientific way of thinking,” says MacDonald. “Too often, people go on beliefs rather than evidence. What we really need in the world today is evidence-based thinking. Assume nothing. Show me the data that supports your conclusions. It’s been an important way to think and operate, and to center your life on.”

When MacDonald took his first job at ETS in 1984, he expected to stay for just one year. The company needed its advanced placement biology curriculum rewritten, so MacDonald re­searched and wrote a series of 12 labs. He liked the work. He went on to do “other things” in science education and learning. Then he simply ended up staying. For decades.

MacDonald considers ETS one of the world’s best laboratories on the psychology of learning. He sees his mission as maintaining that global gold standard while orchestrating new directions for cognitive and noncognitive assessment.

“For the past 70 years, we’ve been mostly measuring cognitive abilities around verbal and math skills,” he says. “But now we’re measuring many more attributes that contribute to success as individuals. I want us to be more than a testing company. I want us to take apart how people learn, and see where we can put in science and measurement to advance learning.

“The focus of education, I think, is to enable a person to make a living and support their family and contribute to society,” MacDonald adds. “We want to make sure we have an understanding of the knowledge, skills, and abilities to get jobs and be productive employees, and make sure they’re getting that in education.”

Take ETS’s new “low-stakes” assessment tool. It looks at high school students’ broader environments—whether they have enough food, whether they have a place to sleep, and other issues bearing on the burden of personal circumstance. Another test recently developed with Fortune 500 companies measures traits like teamwork, grit, and perseverance, all of which are not easily quantifiable but contribute greatly to employee success.

“You can almost think of learning as a GPS,” says MacDonald. “You’re at one point and you can get to another. There are pathways to get there. Can we use the tests to identify where you are and what tools you need to get to the next step?

“We’re optimistic that we can have a real impact on cognitive skills and abilities.”

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