Finding the “Worth” in Admission Assessment

Finding the “Worth” in Admission Assessment

From The Yield, Winter 2013 

In the fall of 2011, Angela Duckworth burst into the awareness of educators because of Paul Tough’s blockbust­er New York Times Magazine article, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” The article, and Tough’s subsequent How Children Succeed, relates rich and compelling sto­ries about Duckworth’s research on how perseverance, self-control, and grit are being promoted and assessed in two New York City schools, a KIPP charter school, and Riverdale Country School, an The Enrollment Management Association member.

The Yield readers recognize that Angela Duckworth has become an The Enrollment Management Association notable: our Think Tank on the Future of Admission Assessment twice met with her and featured her in our Spring 2013 Special Report, and she keynot­ed the The Enrollment Management Association Annual Meeting in September, only one week prior to earning the distinction of being named a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” award winner.

Riverdale Country School continues to team with Duck­worth on several ongoing projects. She returned to the school in October to present her recent research findings to the faculty and to provide support and guidance for the fascinating new Character Growth Card they’ve imple­mented for middle school students.

About the Character Growth Card, Head of School Dominic Randolph explained recently in a letter to par­ents that, “This is the next phase of work that informed our original work on character skills or strengths. I think that this work is essential to the future of the school and has massive relevance for education in general. The survey the children will take this year asks them to think about school and their performance at school in relation to strengths such as optimism, self-control, and grit. I think that can only help them and has become more and more a part of our school culture.”

Randolph is also extending this work beyond RCS by his collaboration with Duckworth and KIPP schools co-founder, Dave Levin, in founding a new organization, the “Character Lab.” ( Samples of the kind of character growth card being implemented this year at Riverdale will soon be posted on the Character Lab website, and copies of the KIPP schools’ character report card can be found at the web­site (see the tab for educators).

Under the co-direction of Jenna King since 2004, admis­sion at Riverside has long had an innovative spirit. King shares, “I can’t think of a single year in the past nine when we didn’t change our practice in one way or another. Inev­itably, there are many things we can’t change in the struc­tured process of New York City admission, but what we can change is to drill deeper into knowing what kind of student and person this applicant is and to seek a better feel of what he or she can bring to our school community.”

One recent initiative, known around the office as “the project,” has been designed both to draw out student ex­pressive creativity and to allow taciturn students to elab­orate about their just-completed interviews. Admission officers, transitioning to a brief private chat with parents or guardians, offer applicants a blank sheet of paper with the directions to “Please use this sheet of paper to share something about yourself with the admission committee. It could be a drawing, a poem, a story, or anything else you would like to create.”

King reports “the project” to be very revealing. “You would be surprised at how much they can tell us in that short amount of time. We don’t necessarily use these to assess a student’s artistic or writing ability, but rather to get at what he values,” she explains. Rarely, she says, is the product used to reduce an applicant’s prospects, but it is with some regularity found to enhance the committee’s interest in a student. Some students create mind maps or graphical representations of their experiences or am­bitions; one wrote an extended essay explaining her per­ceptions of diversity and her plans to bring greater under­standing to her peers during her school years.

As character becomes a greater focus of the education­al program, it is becoming more emphasized in admis­sion interviews as well. Randolph, and his board, recently shifted the school’s mission, narrowing its focus to three commitments: Mind, Character, and Community. For King, the project is to ensure the admission officers assess these three values meaningfully; step one has been to re­vamp the interview format. She explains, “The goal is to use both a checklist and the narrative section to address the qualities in a student, which won’t come through else­where in that student’s file, especially the non-cogs.”

In reflecting on the direction she is leading her depart­ment, King emphasizes the importance of aligning ap­plicant assessment with the school’s evolving educational program priorities. “At Riverdale, we seek out students whose families understand that an education of the mind alone will not lead to success in the absence of character development. The admission team values the work we are doing with Angela Duckworth and makes it a habit to constantly reexamine the tools we use to assess applicants’ non-cognitive abilities.”


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