Saturday, October 11, 2014

College admissions: screening out achievement robots via personality testing

In a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at Wharton, shares his wisdom about America’s college admissions system:

The college admissions system is broken. When students submit applications, colleges learn a great deal about their competence from grades and test scores, but remain in the dark about their creativity and character. Essays, recommendation letters and alumni interviews provide incomplete information about students’ values, social and emotional skills, and capacities for developing and discovering new ideas.
This leaves many colleges favoring achievement robots who excel at the memorization of rote knowledge, and overlooking talented C students. Those with less than perfect grades might go on to dream up blockbuster films like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg or become entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Barbara Corcoran and Richard Branson.
Apparently robots who mindlessly memorize things do better on their SATs than humans who read passages carefully, recognize grammatical errors, and know algebra backwards and forwards. And apparently those mindless robots also get better grades than humans who produce careful, thoughtful work—or who are socially savvy enough to know how to please their teachers and motivate them to grade them generously.

In addition, instead of favoring, say, those who look to benefit the most from college-level courses and to offer the most to their fellow classmates (in terms of a diversity of ideas, insights, perspectives, backgrounds, viewpoints, values and character traits), colleges should instead favor:

(1) students with a certain specific character traits, values, and levels of social and emotional skills (a.k.a. personality discrimination).

(2) students who, even prior to matriculation, look like they will have the most ostentatiously impressive careers after they graduate (a.k.a., the” best graduates” as opposed to “best students” approach).

What should replace our college admissions system, thinks Grant, are the so-called “assessment centers” that companies use to evaluate managers and other employees:
Assessment centers give nontraditional students a better chance to display their strengths. For example, imagine that a college wants to focus less on book smarts and more on wisdom and practical intelligence. Rigorous studies demonstrate that we can assess wisdom by asking applicants to give advice on moral dilemmas: What would you say to a friend who is considering suicide? How should a single parent juggle family and work? The answers offer a window into how well students balance different interests and values.
Sure, I’m a big fan of wisdom, but should colleges (as opposed to, say, trade schools) really be favoring practical intelligence over more abstract, theoretical capacities? As for book smarts, when it comes to the street or the lobby or the conference room or the corporate ladder, these may, indeed, be a bug rather than a feature. But isn't academia, even now, still largely about… books?

And is identifying who does or doesn't stumble over what to say to a single parent or a suicidal friend really the best way to gauge who can handle molecular biology, who will get the most out of a history of Islam course, and who will have the most to offer to fellow classmates during a seminar on symbolist poetry?
Similarly, we can identify candidates with strong interpersonal and emotional skills by watching students teach a lesson to a challenging audience — as Teach for America does when assessing applicants. And tests have already been developed to measure creativity and street smarts, which predict college grades over and above high school grades and SAT scores, while reducing differences among ethnic groups. By broadening the range of criteria, assessment centers make it possible to spot diamonds in the rough.
Assessing college applicants for their teaching skills might be a good idea—but not as a tool for personality discrimination (which, have I mentioned this already?, is a bad idea—and unethical to boot).  A student's teaching ability indicates, more directly than it indicates his/her interpersonal and emotional skills, how well s/he can articulate to fellow classmates his or her ideas, insights, perspectives, backgrounds, viewpoints, and values—the diversity of which are a huge part of the college experience.

What about creativity? Isn't the college experience also enlivened by student creativity? The problem here is the limitation of our creativity measurement tools. I’ve blogged earlier about the one that Mr. Grant is referencing here: the Rainbow/Aurora test. One of its sample questions: Number 7 and Number 4 are playing at school, but then they get in a fight. Why aren't 7 and 4 getting along? Is someone who produces a high-scoring answer necessarily going to contribute more to, or get more out of college than someone who snorts and gives the question the kind of answer it deserves?

It’s also not clear how much students' street smarts add to the college experience. To the extent that they really do “predict college grades over and above high school grades and SAT scores” (Grant provides no reference for this particular claim) it may simply be because those with street smarts are especially good at grade grubbing. I’ve seen that up close and personal.
Third, when students submit essays and creative portfolios in the current application system, it is impossible to know how much help they have received from parents and mentors. In an assessment center, we can verify that students are personally responsible for the work they produce.
Right. But there’s a cheaper alternative that doesn’t involve Grant’s assessment centers—cheaper, because it involves processes already in place. These would be those standardized tests that Grant is so eager to jetison. They include, in particular, the SAT critical writing test. This test, via the much-loathed 5-paragraph essay, is the one source of proctored, unaided student writing that college admissions officers have at their disposal (however rarely they actually read these particular essays). When the new SAT is rolled out next year and the essay becomes optional, we will, indeed, need some sort of a replacement.

For the most glaring omission in the college admissions process isn't students’ personality traits or social skills or values or answers to why 7 and 4 don’t get along, but, rather, their ability to write a clear, insightful, well-organized essay without help from others.

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