Measuring What Matters in Admission

Measuring What Matters in Admission

From the NAIS Independent School Magazine blog, 4/15/15

Never before has assessment been such a central and scrutinized component of the K-12 educational experience. With the dawning of the Common Core State Standards, changes to the SAT, and ongoing national dialogue on student assessment, measuring skills and knowledge has gained serious traction for school-age students. The same conversations dominating the national scene have been occurring at my organization, the Secondary School Admission Test Board (SSATB). Just two years ago, SSATB commissioned a group of leading admission and independent school practitioners for a Think Tank on the Future of Assessment. Four members of the Think Tank worked with me to consider how assessment is changing for the future, and what that might mean for assessments that are used to select students for independent schools.

SSATB was founded in 1957 by a group of admission directors to build a common admission test. Working with the leading U.S. testing company, Educational Testing Service (ETS), in Princeton, New Jersey, the group created the SSAT, which has served as the gold standard in admission testing since the organization’s founding. A main responsibility for admission officers is assessing each candidate’s fit for their school, and the SSAT has done a very good job of predicting first-year grades for students entering independent schools. But even with continued growth and expansion of our cognitive test, the Think Tank members emphatically asserted that other traits were as important to their decision making as cognitive talent, like grit, creativity, or self-efficacy. And so, our Think Tank work took us through 18 months of invigorating discovery and review on research surrounding student success and development as well as emerging assessment trends which might be considered by SSATB’s leadership.

Led by Ray Diffley, director of admission of Choate Rosemary Hall (Connecticut), and together with Nancy Hayes, director of enrollment management at New Canaan Country School (Connecticut); Jonathan Martin, principal of Jonathan E. Martin Educational Services in Arizona; and Marjorie Mitchell, director of admission and financial aid of The Westminster Schools (Georgia), this Think Tank interviewed and assessed leading research from many experts, including Angela Duckworth, University of Pennsylvania’s guru of grit; Robert Sternberg, prolific author on the topic of assessment known for his triarchic theory of intelligence; and William Sedlaceck, an outspoken advocate about the need to incorporate noncognitive assessment in standardized testing, particularly to provide access for underserved populations. We also met with higher education admission directors like Harvard’s Bill Fitzsimmons to better understand how colleges are changing the way they assess students.

After each round of conversation and research review, the Think Tank became more convinced that it was time for independent schools to "measure what matters." Traits such as creativity, openness to learning, curiosity, critical thinking, moral judgment, we theorized, if measured during our admission process might increase the predictive power of student success in our schools. In the words of Marjorie Mitchell, "Character assessment of students for independent schools just makes sense. It is mission appropriate, as most of our schools emphasize their commitment to developing a student’s affective skills and their intellectual ability." A summary of the research studied confirms that character assessment can:

  • help in selecting students who will be academically successful;
  • offer additional data for better selection in highly competitive pools;
  • create more mission-appropriate classes of students;
  • improve the educational support offered to students after enrollment; and
  • send powerful messages to applicant families about a school’s mission and values.

There is no doubt that the continued measurement of cognitive skills for academic preparedness will remain part of a student’s application to independent schools, yet SSATB’s trustees agree with the Think Tank’s thesis and have funded a pilot project to develop a tool for character assessment. We expect our research work will demonstrate that each student’s social/emotional qualities, habits of mind, and intrapersonal biases for certain types of action are important for their success not only in our schools — but in college and in life. Presently, SSATB and a group of 32 pilot schools are developing with ETS a character skills assessment to be used in the independent school admission process – with a pilot test launching this May.

We’re looking at methodologies that will not allow our assessment to be easily faked, coached, or "gamed." We are excited about the future possibilities inherent in pairing the SSAT with a suite of character assessment tools that can provide schools a more comprehensive student profile. Scholar Robert Sternberg reminds us: "Traditional standardized tests, and even school grades, give us good information about some valued skills of students, but practically no information about other valued skills. If we wish to develop students who will be the active citizens and future leaders of tomorrow, we need to measure a broader range of skills important to future success — not just the memory and analytical skills measured by standardized tests, but also creative, practical, and wisdom‐based skills."