Ushering in a new age in admission

September 26, 2017 Heather Hoerle

My life seems to be dusted with irony and here’s a fun personal story to that end. Many years ago, when I applied to Westtown School in Pennsylvania, there was significant concern during the admission process about my ability to perform academically. The worry was based on my weak SSAT scores.  (Irony #1: I am executive director of the institution which offers the SSAT!) 

In spite of my poor SSAT scores, Westtown took a risk and admitted me. During my first year at Westtown, the SSAT proved to be a strong indicator of my academic record… I was constantly in supervised study hall in order to remediate a lifetime of mediocre education. Still, those SSAT scores did not predict the end of my Westtown story (I graduated at the top of my class) nor did they suggest anything about my extracurricular activities and volunteer work. Like so many who attend independent school, I was utterly transformed by my time at Westtown and I am grateful to this day for my parents’ sacrifice in sending me there.

So, what allowed me to overcome academic weaknesses and become successful at Westtown? Looking back, I am pretty sure that my inner determination to do well (psychologists call it conscientiousness; friends call it stubborn doggedness) was responsible for overcoming initial weaknesses.  It is fair to say that Westtown turned me into a strong student committed to learning for my lifetime. It didn’t hurt that I was also curious about the world and eager to learn more. Turns out, these “character skills” served me well through boarding school, college, graduate school, and they even play out in my professional and personal life today. These “character” traits were also nurtured by the educators at Westtown, and developed during my adolescence – a time when so many important skills become codified for young people.

Given this personal experience, it should be no surprise that I have been following top academic institutions (Stanford, U Penn, Yale, Harvard) which are powerful researchers of character education. Whether you follow Angela Duckworth’s research at U Penn on “grit and perseverance,” or Carol Dweck’s powerful studies on mindset, or Harvard’s work on “Making Caring Common” or Yale’s SEL work led by Marc Brackett, it is clear that character skills can be developed and are powerfully important to creating a purpose-led and meaningful life. The emerging research compelled a small group of interested admission and independent school practitioners to study “character” over a two-year period and ultimately to recommend to EMA’s board the development of a character assessment tool. 

Initially, our Think Tank on the Future of Assessment discussed how assessment was changing for the future. We interviewed leading researchers including Duckworth; Robert Sternberg, prolific author on the triarchic theory of intelligence; and Bill Sedlacek, the University of Maryland’s outspoken admission advocate for non-cognitive assessment in standardized testing. We also met with higher education admission directors like Harvard’s Bill Fitzsimmons to understand how colleges are changing the way they assess students. After each round of conversation and research review, the Think Tank became more convinced that it was time for independent schools to "measure what matters." We theorized that traits such as openness to learning, curiosity, critical thinking, and self-awareness, if measured during our admission process, might increase the predictive power of student success in our schools. Working with The EMA testing and research team and scientists at the Educational Testing Service, a group of experienced independent school enrollment professionals from nearly 50 independent schools oversaw three years of field trials, question development, and research.  Today, we’re officially welcoming The Character Skills Snapshot, an innovative tool designed to measure eight essential character skills needed for success in independent schools: resilience, open-mindedness, responsibility, teamwork, social awareness, self-control, intellectual curiosity, and initiative.

The Snapshot builds upon our extensive research and field work and we are proud to have created a reliable assessment for young people in grades 6-12. Our Snapshot field trials were conducted with more than 12,000 students; additional user testing was conducted with parents to gain feedback on the design and reporting features of The Snapshot.

The result of our rigorous process is a tool upon which you can rely!  The Snapshot is a 30-minute online tool that students take in the privacy of their homes. It’s meant to give admission offices a “snapshot” view of where students see themselves on all eight character skills.  We hope the tool will allow you to add another level of insight to your selection process, and to open doors with prospective families in discussing what your school values. We hope the tool will give you confidence to take risks with those students who, like me, might not have offered up the top academic scores, but whose character traits will assure that in the long term they will be active, contributing students in your community.  

We are so excited about the possibilities inherent in pairing the SSAT with our Snapshot, as we provide a more comprehensive student profile which should mark a genuine shift in the way we manage the admission selection process, communicate the value of our schools, and shape our student communities. As of this writing, nearly half of EMA member schools will accept The Snapshot’s results in year one – a testimony to The Snapshot’s growing acceptance.    

An important final thought for those reading this blog:  research on assessment suggests that we need MORE insights into a student’s skills and passions. The SSAT offers a predictive tool to help you understand each applicant’s academic readiness for your program; it was never designed to do more than predict that student’s first year in your school.  As our research with The Snapshot rolls forward, we’ll be interested to answer the question of how well this new tool can predict a student’s character trajectory in your school and in life.  At the Enrollment Management Association, we believe that the admission practices of the past will not sustain the independent schools of the future.  Here’s to our community’s ongoing advancement and discovery in the art and science of admission!

About the Author

Heather Hoerle

Executive Director & Chief Executive Officer

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