Editor’s note: This is the last in a three-part series on character education and how character attributes are becoming a factor in secondary and higher education admission. The first part covers independent schools’ trailblazing efforts. The second part discusses the evolution of the college admission system. This part analyzes concrete steps to bring admission reform.
An endemic condition in education is that we operate in separate professional worlds. Although the educational system is interlocking and mutually dependent, schools and colleges are scattered across a large nation, beholden to different boards of trustees, and competing with one another for attention, students, and dollars. This is not a malicious practice; rather, it reflects the complexity and scale of American education.
How, then, do we bring change to college admission? Specifically, how do we embed character attributes in this system? I see three strategies as imperative.
1. Build alliances across educational levels and among diverse constituencies.
There’s wide-ranging interest in elevating character attributes in our culture as best-selling books by Angela Duckworth and David Brooks make clear. In education, many colleges, schools, and professional organizations are grappling with how to embed character in admission, curriculum, and assessment. Moreover, crucial operational connections exist among college admission offices, testing organizations, and college placement offices. Given these interlocking constituencies, change must come by collective action.
Toward this end, last September the Institute on Character and Admission convened key actors in the admissions world with a common interest in elevating character attributes in their decision-making. Participants included admission deans from leading colleges, representatives from the testing organizations, leading reformers and researchers, and college counselors and secondary school leaders. We look forward to welcoming additional members when the institute meets in Boston in September.
2. Draw on the commitment and creativity of college admission leaders.
Involving the gatekeepers — college admission staff — is crucial to elevating character attributes in admission practice. In addition to the deans who joined the Institute on Character and Admission, the “Turning the Tide” project, inspired and led by Rick Weissbourd at Harvard, has recruited more than 170 college admission deans into the character movement.
In talking to admission deans, I have stumbled on an interesting paradox. Deans of the most selective colleges with the luxury of choosing among thousands of high-achieving students express genuine interest in using character-based attributes in an explicit, consistent, and valid way. Upon closer examination, this desire makes sense because character strengths can be an important discriminator among these many stars.
Now, it’s true that admission officers have always sought to identify students with exemplary character. The interview was one approach. Today, the interview is virtually extinct because research has demonstrated its unreliability and applicants are too numerous. However, smaller colleges and independent schools continue to use the interview method.
In general, colleges look at the student essay, recommendation letters, service activities, work experience, and new, more open-ended questions on standardized tests. Still, admission deans find these sources inadequate, and are working to develop character-oriented rubrics, definitions, and scoring scales to assess students.
Listen to David Holmes and Jim Bock, vice president and dean of admission at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, discuss Swarthmore’s approach to addressing character attributes in the admission process. (10 minutes)
3. Create effective strategies and tools.
Members of the Institute on Character and Admission agreed on 28 action steps to reshape the college admission practice. I highlight two prominent ones below.
I. Develop a rubric to capture the institution’s present practice. Formalize and codify the non-cognitive attributes that shape the school’s admission process.
Several colleges have developed rubrics that capture non-cognitive attributes in the review process, including:
Bucknell University in Pennsylvania — The admission team has drawn on the work of Angela Duckworth, William Sedlacek, and other researchers to develop a comprehensive rubric to guide review. Readers are trained to identify any of seven non-cognitive attributes. (See infographic.)
University of Denver — When admission staffers read applications, they are guided by two things: the definition of resilience (“the student has persevered through significant challenges”) and behavioral examples, such as “the student demonstrates great motivation and leadership in addressing obstacles, many of which are beyond his/her control.” A rating for resilience provides useful context about a student’s curriculum, grades, and standardized test scores.
Wesleyan University in Connecticut — The admission staff interviews applicants and evaluates them based on a rubric that assesses personal qualities, such as leadership and persistence. The staff scores applicants on a 1-9 scale.
MIT — The admission team looks at essays and recommendations by teachers and counselors to identify non-cognitive attributes, such as persistence and adaptability, that predict academic success at MIT. Ratings of these attributes as well as narrative observations by staff inform the selection committee’s decisions.
II. Explore the feasibility of utilizing an assessment instrument in the admission process to discern non-cognitive/character strengths.
Some of the most advanced work in instrument design is occurring at the secondary level. As I described in my earlier blog
, the Enrollment Management Association, in partnership with the Educational Testing Service (ETS), created the Character Skills Assessment for use in independent school admission. Because school leaders realized that character attributes are malleable and, especially among adolescents, in progressive stages of development, the assessment tool is now called the Character Skills Snapshot (CSS).
Working with the ETS research scientists and representatives from independent schools, the Enrollment Management team refined the assessment categories and the survey from 2013 to 2016. The eight categories are: intellectual curiosity, initiative, open-mindedness, resilience, responsibility, self-control, social awareness, and teamwork.
In May 2017, a planning group reviewed the survey for mission relevance, assessment format, and presentation of results. More than 5,000 students took part in the CSS’s pilot phase in 2016-2017. The CSS will be available to all independent schools in the upcoming academic year.
Administering the CSS in independent schools will provide insight into how schools explain its purpose to applicants and their parents, how they use the CSS to make admission decisions, and the tool’s perceived value in identifying prospective students with non-cognitive strengths. Whether colleges will take the leap of using an assessment instrument is unclear, but the CSS offers a first-rate model for potential use in higher education.
Listen to David Holmes chat with Meghan Brenneman, director of Character Assessment Programs at the Enrollment Management Association, about the formation and evolution of the Character Skills Snapshot tool. (12 minutes)
A Hopeful Future
This three-part series has focused on the emergence of the character movement, the complexities and pathologies of the college admission process, and avenues for reshaping college admission to embed character attributes in decision-making. Both the “Turning the Tide” project and the Institute on Character and Admission indicate that we are at the beginning of a revolution in how we admit young people to college and independent schools.
These developments hold promise that the doors of opportunity will widen to include youth of great potential who had been left out. Research shows that young people with resilience, grit, and ingenuity, no matter their backgrounds, are likely to succeed in school and work and make a positive difference over a lifetime. Our nation needs these young men and women; I’m encouraged that colleges and schools are developing new ways to find them.