By Heather Hoerle, Executive Director, The Enrollment Management Association

When my daughter was applying to independent schools just a few years ago, I was keenly aware that there was more to her than her academic record. Would a file, for example, share the story of her deep empathy for others? As the executive director of the Enrollment Management Association (formerly SSATB), a nonprofit membership organization for independent schools and the governing body for the Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT), that personal experience was especially meaningful because it brought to light the need to help admission professionals go beyond the transcripts, teacher recommendations, and cognitive test scores. Traits that are hard to measure, such as teamwork, empathy, and integrity, are signs of values and character in action and part of what independent schools are looking for in children who apply for admission.

Because of this awareness and a desire to explore the opportunities inherent in assessment, the Enrollment Management Association commissioned a group of four leading admission and independent school thought leaders to work 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. We formed the Think Tank on the Future of Assessment and interviewed and considered leading research from many experts, including Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania’s “guru of grit;” Robert Sternberg, an expert on assessment known for his triarchic theory of intelligence; and William Sedlaceck, an outspoken advocate for incorporating noncognitive assessment in standardized testing, particularly to provide access for underserved populations. We met with higher education admission directors, such as Harvard’s Bill Fitzsimmons, to better understand how colleges are changing the way they assess students. We also interviewed schools about what they were currently doing to measure those elusive traits that speak to their missions and their school communities. 

Our efforts resulted in two reports that document our findings for the community (go to http://bit.ly/TTOAReports for more information). After each round of conversations and research reviews, we became more convinced that it was time for independent schools to “measure what matters.” We theorized that measuring such traits as openness to learning, curiosity, critical thinking, and moral judgment during the admission process might increase our power to predict student success in our schools.

Although there is no doubt that the continued measurement of cognitive skills for academic preparedness with the SSAT and other tools is still an important part of a student’s application to independent schools, our trustees agreed with the think tank experts’ thesis and funded a pilot project to develop the Character Skills Assessment (CSA), an innovative tool meant to complement test scores by examining the character traits children demonstrate every day in school and in the community.

In 2014, the research and development plan for CSA was launched. Built by admission test experts at the Enrollment Management Association and the Educational Testing Service in conjunction with independent schools, the CSA helps independent school admission teams understand the unique qualities that children will contribute to their distinctive communities.

To facilitate initial testing, a volunteer group of admission directors, administrators, and other educators from 32 independent schools (the G32) came together for two CSA summits. The G32 schools were those that participated in the think tank and pilot testing, were recognized for innovative practices, or expressed an interest in the work. Additional schools that participated in pilot testing (Plus schools), were intentionally chosen to represent a wide diversity of school types: boarding and day; multiple grade configurations; coed and single sex; varied academic programs; domestic, including regional areas of the US; and international. As Doug Price from Middlesex School (MA) said, “Although the participants came from a diverse group of schools, it was apparent that we shared the belief that current assessment tools are limited in predictive value, and the work we had gathered to do could only improve our ability to assess students.”

The pilot schools tested currently enrolled students as well as applicants through an online system developed by our team. Together they tested thousands of children and provided invaluable benchmark data for our alpha testing year. We then held a second G32 summit to discuss the results of the research, including item pretesting and one-on-one research conducted directly with students (dubbed cognitive labs). In addition, the G32 schools discussed key operational considerations. Following data analysis by our team of experienced testing experts and industry advisory board, we found the initial results of the pilot program very promising. The next round of CSA testing rolled out in fall 2016 and focused on refining and expanding the CSA’s range, with a goal of full release of the CSA as an SSAT complement in the 2017–2018 testing season.

Pairing the SSAT with a suite of character assessment tools will provide schools and IECs with a more comprehensive student profile and get to the heart of who applicants are as students and citizens. Adding an awareness of each student’s social-emotional qualities and habits of mind to the already well-documented predictive power of the SSAT will increase enrollment professionals’ ability to work with independent educational consultants to select students who will succeed in their schools. This innovative tool will undoubtedly enhance the portfolios of the students you counsel to ensure that they are finding the best match independent school.

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