Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Skewing college admissions towards those who "look wonderful"

In a piece in this past Sunday's Washington Post, Robert Sternberg, provost and senior vice president of Oklahoma State University and the author of College Admissions for the 21st Century, argues that the SATs do a poor job of predicting student success, and advocates a different test that aims to assess creativity and practical skills.

Sternberg's evidence for the deficiencies of the SATs is largely impressionistic and anecdotal. First is his experience in the admissions office at Yale University:
Over the course of my years in the Yale admissions office, I found myself continually surprised by how many of the students we accepted had sky-high SAT scores but seemed to lack basic practical and creative skills, whereas others with more modest scores were stunning successes at Yale, both academically and personally.
Since--as Sternberg himself emphasizes in this article--college admissions officers weren't officially measuring practical, creative, and "personal" skills at that time, it's not clear how Sternberg formed this impression.

Then comes Sternberg's impression of how "many students" look 20 years after college:
Many students who appear to have tremendous potential at age 17, based on their SAT scores and GPAs, don't look so wonderful 20 years later.
Here it's unclear not only where Sternberg's impression comes from, but what his criteria for "looking wonderful" are. 

Third, there is Sternberg's anecdote about an investment bank executive:
An executive at a major investment bank told me awhile ago, looking back on his 25 years on Wall Street, that he had found that SAT scores predicted quite well who would be good analysts at his bank - that is, they predicted the technical skills needed to evaluate investments. What they did not signal, he said, is who would be able to take the next step, who would have the capacity to envision where various markets are going, to see larger trends and to make decisions that go beyond individual stock or bond picks.
Here we see the popular right-brain-biased notion that big picture thinking (assessing the market as a whole) is inherently superior to focused thinking (evaluating particular investments)--instead of being a qualitatively different ability.

Having made his case, Sternberg argues for alternatives to the SATs that
assess and value analytical, creative and practical skills and wisdom, not just the ability to memorize or do well on tests.
implying in the process that the SATs don't measure analytical skills.

It is at this point in the article that Sternberg starts to let on what he means by "looking wonderful":
We should admit people on the basis of their potential for leadership and active citizenship - people who will make a positive, meaningful and enduring difference to the world.
Here's an example of the assessment questions Sternberg proposes, and, in fact, went ahead and implemented during his time at Tufts University, where it figures as one of the essay questions on the Tufts application:
"Use one of the following topics to create a short story: a. The Spam Filter, b. Seventeen Minutes Ago, c. Two by Two, d. Facebook, e. Now There's the Rub, f. No Whip Half-Caf Latte, g. The Eleventh Commandment."
This is just the kind of open-ended, creative writing question that completely staunches the creative juices of many left-brainers, however creative they are in ways that aren't apparent to right-brainers.

Sternberg enthusiastically lists other examples:
Other [questions] might ask students to draw something, such as a design for a new product; to post a video on YouTube; or to imagine an alternate history (what if the Nazis had won World War II?). An analytical question, meanwhile, might ask a student what his favorite book is and why. A practical question might ask a student how he convinced a friend of an idea. And a wisdom-oriented question might ask him how a high school passion might be turned toward the common good later in life.
Here we see the all-too-familiar, right-brain notions of creativity as visual, practical skills as social, and wisdom as outward-focused and applied.

Test answers would be scored on how "original and compelling they are and how appropriately they accomplish the task at hand," and Sternberg assures us this would involve "well-developed scoring rubrics, backed up by a training program on how to use them."  Ah yes, rubrics.

Sternberg and his tests have appeared earlier on this blog, and he makes the same claims about this test as he does about the Rainbow Project Aurora test he has devised for determining who should be admitted to gifted programs:
After controlling for high school grades and SATs, Tufts's new admissions questions, like those posed by the Rainbow Project before them, improved prediction of college grades. They also helped forecast which students would shine as active citizens and leaders on campus, and they virtually eliminated the admissions edge enjoyed by some ethnic groups.
Of course, current trends in education include not just the marginalization of the SATs that Sternberg and many others have advocated, but also a shift in grading priorities that now downplay analytical skills and give more weight to the kinds of creativity that Sternberg prefers. It's thus no surprise that Sternberg's tests are doing a better job of predicting college grades than the SATs might once have done.  

But not everyone measures "wonderful" by such superficial and showy features as grades, leaderships skills, and active citizenry. In our present society, it's not these kinds of accomplishments, but rather those of the solitary, narrowly focused, super-analytical, quirkily creative left-brainer, that risk being dismissed--not only in the college admissions process, but also, as Sternberg himself makes clear, in how their post-college accomplishments are appraised by others.


kcab said...

Few people look wonderful 20 years on!

That's facetious, but the types of accomplishments that "look wonderful" at age 40 are more rare than those that do at 20. Might be difficult to fill an entire freshman class at Yale.

Niels Henrik Abel said...

Sure, let's just forget about tests and grading entirely, since none of those things can adequately measure how artsy-fartsy students are, anyhow.

If you absolutely insist on dispensing grades, give everyone an "A" because they're all wonderful, and be done with it.


collegedirection said...

As a college consultant, I work with a lot of left-brained students. I think we need to do a better job of helping all students find ways to show their skills and talents. The SAT and GPA may not be the best admissions criteria for lots of students, but with the number of college applications schools are receiving, how realistic are some of the other answers?

College Direction
Denver, Colorado

Amy P said...

"...they virtually eliminated the admissions edge enjoyed by some ethnic groups."

I think this is what it's really all about. He's afraid of having a campus with too many quiet, introverted East Asians, so they want to put a finger on the scale to keep their numbers down.

Joanne Jacobs said...

If writing a "creative" story based on a goofy prompt becomes part of college admissions, then super-striving, high-achieving Asian-American students will learn how to write "creative" stories based on goofy prompts.