Character Counts and Counting Character: A New Way to Measure Skills

September 16, 2019

Character Counts and Counting Character: A New Way to Measure Skills

Assessing an applicant’s character may be one of the more challenging aspects of the independent school admission process. But The Character Skills Snapshot, a tool launched by the Enrollment Management Association (EMA) this past season, offers a new way to gauge these seemingly intangible qualities.

The Snapshot, so named because it captures an applicant’s view of their character skills at a moment in time, was off to a quick start with an official rollout that followed four years of research and pilot programs. Since last September, more than 15,500 students took the 29-question assessment.

EMA Director of Character Assessment Meghan Brenneman, Ed.D, who helped develop the test, said the assessment was the result of conversations EMA had been having for years with admission staff at member schools. “We had been getting feedback that they were already doing character assessment in a non-standardized way, and they thought it might be helpful to have another tool to understand this particular aspect of candidates’ development,” said Dr. Brenneman. Indeed, 46 member schools, called the G32+, helped EMA create and pilot the test.

How does it work? The Snapshot assesses students’ possession of six intrapersonal skills (intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness, resilience, responsibility, self-control, and initiative) and two interpersonal skills (social awareness and teamwork).

It includes 19 “forced choice” questions that ask students to look at three statements and choose the one that is “most like me” and one that is “least like me”.

The other 10 questions describe scenarios and ask test takers to rate given responses on a scale from “Not Appropriate” to “Very Appropriate.”

Based on these responses, the students were then scored on each of the skills. Those in the bottom 25th percentile of a skill were determined to be “emerging” in that skill; those in the 25th to 75th percentile were said to be “developing” that skill; and those in the 75th to 100th percentile were said to be “demonstrating” it.

So how did the first year of The Snapshot fare?

Kevin Petway, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at EMA who helped develop the test, said EMA got surprisingly few questions from families about the new assessment during their peak customer service period in December.

Because The Snapshot is so new and in its first year, the majority of schools using it made it a suggested option and used it as a complement to their current processes. In a survey of the G32+ schools, admission staff indicated that some schools required The Snapshot of their applicants, while others made it optional. Most seemed to take a gradual approach, making it a part of their application process but often using it to confirm their own impressions of candidates. Several respondents planned to circle back after the admission season to see if The Snapshot results corresponded with other parts of a student’s application.

Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Susie Gundle of Oregon Episcopal School (OR) was enthusiastic about The Snapshot and made it an optional part of her school’s recent application cycle: “I am very impressed with the final product. A lot of work and research went into it. It’s well done, well described and explained. I’m very encouraged by it,” she said. “The qualities that The Snapshot is aiming to identify, these distinguishing qualities, are very difficult to find out about. Anything that would enhance the lens of that character side of a candidate is very, very appealing to us.”

Gundle said that Oregon Episcopal, which currently has about 525 upper and middle school students, received about 30 Snapshot results from applicants this year. “We loved reading and seeing the reports,” she mentioned. “We didn’t have a large enough sample size to draw conclusions. But we will review the data… and will likely do one more optional year. It’s a snapshot, part of what makes a successful student. It’s another piece of the puzzle.”

In post-season conversations, enrollment professionals also had suggestions for improvement to the assessment. All such changes were discussed when the G32+ group convened in Princeton on May 15. The Snapshot will continue to be improved and refined, with EMA completing validity studies comparing The Snapshot results with student outcomes, comparing student self evaluation with the impressions they make with their prospective schools, and focus groups with families. Additionally, a benchmark The Snapshot will be offered to schools beginning this fall, so that they may more easily compare applicants with their current student populations. 

The Snapshot will be the subject of continuing research and refinement—not surprising for the first new tool that admission officers have had in decades. “There hasn’t been a new component to the admission process in 50 years. Application, interview, test scores, and letters of recommendation have been the tried and true,” said Dr. Brenneman. “Schools want to understand their applicant pool better. They want to know if they are missing out on students to whom they should be extending offers.”

For more information about The Snapshot, visit snapshot.

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