With Character Emphasis, Independent Schools Return to Roots and Blaze Trails

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on character education and how character attributes are becoming a factor in secondary and higher education admission.  

Independent schools have explicitly addressed character attributes in their mission statements and daily practices since their founding. Chapel, commitment to community, sportsmanship, expectations of honesty, etc. are a part of this time-honored tradition. School handbooks underscore the importance of character attributes.
Today, researchers such as Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman, Nathan Kuncel at the University of Minnesota, Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, and others have affirmed that GPA and college persistence are correlated strongly with character traits, including self-control and perseverance. Moreover, research shows that character strengths are a stronger predictor of success in college, work, and life than conventional measures, including SAT scores.
Thus, the focus on character education has surged among the various school sectors and across the pipeline. Independent schools and college admission deans are now working to address character in their decision-making. At the same time, we know an idea of the moment can sweep through the educational pipeline and then disappear. Today’s popular idea – e.g., small schools; a national core curriculum; computer-based learning – often has a short shelf-life. Could explicit character education and embedded character assessment suffer the same fate?
Several factors suggest otherwise. Paul Tough’s 2012 book, How Children Succeed, and Duckworth’s popular TED Talk and best-selling 2016 book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, have motivated a wealth of new research in character development and prompted schools to experiment in this area. Importantly, Duckworth is in demand as a speaker in the corporate world, and many business leaders are stressing that character traits, such as resilience and persistence, are crucial for career success.
Given my personal experience working across the education spectrum, including with independent schools, I am particularly encouraged that independent schools are playing a leading role and, as such, are recommitting to their roots. Their efforts have the potential to change how students are educated and admitted. I describe two promising initiatives below.
Proven Tool to Assess Schools’ Character Missions
A collective desire to measure the nonacademic side of independent schools’ missions led members of the Elementary Schools Research Collaborative to launch a grassroots initiative in 2009. These 20 schools partnered with the Educational Testing Service and its Center for Academic and Workforce Readiness and Success to develop an instrument. The group of schools consisted of:
  1. Duke School (NC)                                                               
  2. Episcopal Day School (GA)                                                  
  3. Far Hills Country Day School (NJ)                                         
  4. The Foote School (CT)                                                      
  5. Grace-Saint Luke’s Episcopal School (TN)                             
  6. The Green Vale School (NY)                                                 
  7. Greenwich Country Day School (CT)                                      
  8. The Lexington School (KY)                                                    
  9. Marin Country Day School (CA)                                             
  10. New Canaan Country School (CT)                                          
  11. Old Trail School (OH) 
  12. The Pike School (MA)
  13. Rippowam Cisqua School (NY)
  14. Rodeph Sholom School (NY)
  15. The Rumson Country Day School (NJ)
  16. Saint Martin’s Episcopal School (GA)
  17. Shady Hill School (MA)
  18. Shore Country Day School (MA)
  19. St. Patrick’s Episcopal School (DC)
  20. Trinity Episcopal School (NC)
The result was the Mission Skills Assessment (MSA), a formative assessment to help independent schools carry out character education by zeroing in on six character skills: teamwork, creativity, ethics, resilience, curiosity, and time management.
After developing and piloting the tool over several years, the MSA became available nationally in 2014 and has been used by more than 90 middle schools. It is now administered by the Enrollment Management Association (formerly SSATB).
Students typically take about an hour to complete the self-assessment. The survey includes many items, such as the following:
  • I like to work with people. (teamwork)
  • I generate novel ideas. (creativity)
  • I am an honest person. (ethics)
  • I overcome challenges and setbacks. (resilience)
  • I love to learn. (curiosity)
  • I take due dates seriously. (time management)
In addition to these items, the MSA contains Situational Judgment exercises that ask students what they would do in a specific situation, and students must choose among alternative actions. The MSA also includes teacher assessments of individual students, with items like those in the student survey. Each school receives an annual report, which summarizes the data for the whole school.            
A 2016 survey of 37 participating schools found that the MSA is a valuable tool to fulfill schools’ missions: 84 percent reported that the MSA captures the values that their schools aim to develop; 54 percent reported that they have used the results for school improvement. In a follow-up focus group meeting, Jennifer Phillips, director of teaching and learning at Far Hills Country Day School, noted, “It is a tool to keep us accountable to our school’s mission.” There was consensus that the MSA helps students, faculty, and parents gain a common language around non-cognitive attributes.  
Listen to David Holmes and Jennifer Phillips of Far Hills Country Day School discuss the formation and utility of the Mission Skills Assessment.

Besides the MSA, other tools are available to evaluate schools’ effectiveness in fostering character strengths, including the ERB and Duckworth’s Grit Survey. Each one relies on experienced psychometricians and research scientists to ensure the validity and reliability of the measures.
There are, of course, built-in challenges in employing such data for effective character education. Summary reports must be brief and include graphs that are easy for school leaders to interpret. Report formats and data presentations must be consistent from year-to-year to provide meaningful comparisons and track school progress.
In addition, because school leaders and faculties have expansive agendas and many goals, carving out time to interpret and act collectively on data findings can be a challenge. Yet I maintain that independent schools need to invest this time to fulfill their missions.
Breaking New Ground in the Admission Process
As many schools elevate and assess character attributes, however, a disconnect exists between this movement at the secondary level and the way most colleges make decisions to admit applicants. College admission requirements have direct bearing on the priorities and practices in independent schools, historically known as college preparatory schools. In both secondary and higher education, the standard screening mechanisms include GPA, standardized test scores, AP’s, and class rank. Faced with large numbers of applicants and looking for seemingly objective measures, college rely on assessments that are easy to count.
However, a few efforts are underway to change the norm for college entrance.
  • The 2016 report “Turning the Tide” presents a vision for elevating caring and community service in education and reshaping college admission. Spearheaded by Harvard University’s Rick Weissbourd, the initiative has attracted leading colleges.
  • The Institute on Character and Admission formed at a gathering in Columbus, Ohio, in September 2016. The 55 participants, including admission deans at the collegiate and secondary levels, testing organizations, leading researchers and reformers, and college counselors, agreed on 28 initiatives to change admission practice. As institute co-founder, I gave the TEDx talk “Revitalizing America: Character, Gatekeepers and the College Admissions Revolution” in November 2016.
  • In January 2017, the annual conference of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California focused on character attributes and their potential role in college admission. Prominent researchers and admission innovators, including Weissbourd, Jerry Lucido, Don Hossler, Sam Rikoon, and Keith Wright, led the discussion.
Influenced by these developments, several independent schools are moving to change their admission policies. They’re asking: “If character attributes are fundamental to our mission, shouldn’t we look systematically for these attributes in our admission process?”
In a major step forward, the Enrollment Management Association, which offers the standardized test for independent school admission, has been leading a collective effort toward this goal, enlisting psychometricians at the Educational Testing Service. Educators from independent schools nationwide have joined to create the Character Skills Assessment (CSA) for potential use in the admission process. The group began developing the CSA in 2014, and is field-testing the instrument in 35 schools this academic year. The plan is to make it widely available to schools after the analysis is complete.
With independent school input at each stage of development, the emerging CSA addresses core character attributes, with questions organized around five key areas: initiative, intellectual curiosity, resilience, self-control, and open-mindedness. Students will self-report their attributes. The group anticipates that this instrument will be a part of the application package for middle and upper schools and a tool for evaluating students’ character development during their time at the school. In a sense, it’s a logical outgrowth of the Mission Skills Assessment.
The CSA breaks new ground in the field because it’s the first systematic attempt to embed a character-based instrument in the admission process at either the secondary or higher education level. If the CSA gains traction among independent schools and satisfies college leaders’ concerns and questions, it could also influence the admission process in higher education.  

But many questions loom:
  • Will the CSA become a required part of the application package in independent school admission, or will it be optional?
  • How will admission officers judge the validity of the assessment, given that students are self-reporting their attributes?
  • Will admission officers use the CSA to help make admission decisions?
  • What other character-related information (recommendations, essays, interview) will be factored into decisions?
  • What priority will schools give to character attributes versus academic data (test scores and GPA) in making decisions?
  • How will schools articulate the rationale for an admission decision?
  • What backlash, if any, will come from parents?
  • Will parents appeal decisions assumed to be influenced by a character assessment?
What underlies all these questions is whether independent schools and colleges are ready to take the leap of factoring character attributes into admission decisions. A growing number of educational leaders hope so.
Inviting You to Continue the Conversation
What is the prognosis for embedding character into the admission process? What are the barriers? What forces suggest change is possible?
Educators, share your observations and insights below this blog, or reply to me directly at [email protected].
And stay tuned for the next blogs in this series on the entrenched culture and practices of higher education and what a cohort of admission deans, together with testing experts and secondary school partners, is doing to bring about change.
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David Holmes

David Holmes was co-director of the Institute on Character and Admission and executive director of strategic initiatives at Community School (ID). He was a professor and academic administrator at the University of Vermont and served as head of Suffield Academy (CT) and Community School (ID).