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New Fields to Plow in Admissions

Los Angeles — In an article this week, I describe “noncognitive” assessment as the next frontier in college admissions. Like any frontier, this one’s full of promise—and uncertainty. Enrollment officials who have begun to explore this realm describe many challenges therein.

Yet those challenges are well worth meeting, says William E. Sedlacek, a pioneer in the field of nontraditional assessment. On Thursday morning, Mr. Sedlacek, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Maryland at College Park and author of Beyond the Big Test: Noncognitive Assessment in Higher Education, urged colleges to consider new ways of evaluating applicants’ skills and potential. The traditional tools, he insisted, have reached the limit of their usefulness. “We can’t just continue down the same track,” he said.

Mr. Sedlacek spoke at a conference hosted by the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice. The conference, “Attributes That Matter: Beyond the Usual in College Admission and Success,” has brought together researchers, admissions officers, and college counselors interested in alternative means of assessing applicants.

Admissions officers at selective colleges must often compare high-achieving students with similar, if not identical, standardized-test scores and grade-point averages. That “restriction of range,” as described by Mr. Sedlacek, represents a dead end for those searching for fine distinctions among a slew of applicants. “We don’t know how to measure these attributes any better,” he said. “We have plowed that furrow.”

ACT and SAT examinations can measure only what they were designed to measure, which, much research shows, is far less than the sum of an applicant’s traits and habits, the many ingredients of future success or failure. Mr. Sedlacek has developed assessments that measure students’ noncognitive attributes, such as leadership, determination, and the ability to meet long-range goals. Several institutions, including DePaul and Oregon State Universities, are using noncognitive assessments based on his research.

As high-school graduates become more and more diverse, Mr. Sedlacek told the audience, colleges must look at a range of abilities, not just the knowledge measured by grades and the two big college-entrance tests. If admissions officers continue to rely so heavily on those traditional measures, Mr. Sedlacek said, “diversity will be more just a term rather than something operational.”

Many admissions deans have told me that measuring noncognitive attributes would become even more important if they were no longer able to consider applicants’ race and ethnicity. “If they could find a reliable way to measure this,” one dean said, “it would help immensely.”

But not everyone agrees that reliable measures exist. Although some colleges have embraced nontraditional assessments, many admissions officers have long viewed them with skepticism. Even some who see potential in noncognitive measures wonder, as one dean said, how to “operationalize” such instruments, which require time and training to use. Others imagine a day when they can use standardized noncognitive assessments designed and sold by testing companies.

Over the years, many discussions of cognitive and noncognitive measures have been an either/or affair, as if colleges must abandon one to use the other. But Mr. Sedlacek described noncognitive measures as complements to existing metrics. ”I’m not suggesting that you throw out all this other stuff,” he said. “I’m just saying, Add it in there and see what happens.”

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