Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Colleges Crack Open the Admissions Door to Consider Students’ Skills

By Catherine Gewertz — February 05, 2019 6 min read
Chynna Krouser attends a geology class at Hunter College in New York City, where she is a junior with a 3.0 grade point average. Krouser came to Hunter through a pilot project that expanded the admissions criteria for students graduating from performance-based high schools like hers. Krouser submitted an advanced algebra project she completed in her sophomore year at Eastside Community High School in New York City.

Imagine a high school where students skip standardized end-of-course tests. Instead, to pass a class or graduate, they show off the results of big projects they’ve done, such as analyzing why the United States lost the Vietnam War or how geometric patterns can be used to produce solar energy.

Could this kind of testing—known as performance assessment—make it tougher for these students to get into college?

That’s a big question on the minds of educators in K-12 as more schools are getting interested in using projects and portfolios to produce a fuller picture of student learning.

The trouble is that most college admissions officers already must review tall stacks of applications quickly. Few can carve out more time to read long descriptions of students’ work or watch videos of their presentations.

“Performance-based assessments can generate a wealth of information for colleges about what could make a student successful there,” said David Hawkins, the policy director at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

“But in admissions, it’s like trying to cram an enormous square peg into a small round hole” because most admissions offices are set up to process applications in a swift, formulaic way, Hawkins said.

So how can college admissions officers get a quick and accurate sense of what students from performance-based schools have accomplished? A few projects around the country are trying to answer that question.

A Software Barrier

One of those initiatives, Reimagining College Access, wants to lower a key barrier to considering performance assessments in students’ admission applications: colleges’ software systems.

Hawkins, who’s working on that project, said most colleges use software systems designed to process students’ grades and test scores, but they can’t accept videos, research papers, and other projects. Reimagining College Access, based at the Learning Policy Institute in California, works to create or find online platforms that can accept those kinds of student work.

With the resources to spend more time on each student’s application, the most selective private colleges are the ones most likely to be able to examine more complex forms of student work. And many have been doing that kind of “holistic admissions” for years. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, allows students to upload “creative portfolios” that capture research, visual and performing arts, and maker projects.

But most students attend big public universities, with formula-driven criteria and little time for nuance in evaluating applicants. One project, in New York, is pushing those doors open a little wider.

The New York Performance Standards Consortium, a network of public high schools that use project-based learning and performance assessment, found its students were having a tough time getting admitted to the City University of New York’s four-year institutions. So it teamed up with the CUNY system to see what would happen if CUNY expanded the criteria it used to consider consortium students for admission.

In a pilot project that began in 2015, CUNY campuses began reviewing the performance-based projects and work portfolios of consortium students, and teachers’ descriptions of their work, even if those students’ SAT scores fell just below the minimum cutoffs for each CUNY campus.

Preliminary findings of that pilot are promising. Graduates of consortium high schools who were admitted through the pilot are earning grades at CUNY that are as good or better than the average for admitted New York City students, and they are outdoing them when it comes to earning credits.

CUNY officials declined to discuss the pilot for this story. But Michelle Fine, a CUNY professor who’s analyzing the data from that project, said it has allowed admissions offices to “encounter applicants they wouldn’t have encountered before,” and use students’ performance assessments as good predictors of their college success.

Opening a Door

Chynna Krouser is a case in point. Under CUNY’s traditional rules, she probably wouldn’t have been accepted. Her grades put her in the top 10 percent of her class at New York City’s Eastside Community High, a consortium school, but her SAT scores fell shy of CUNY’s requirements.

But when the pilot opened the door for Krouser to share more of her work—including an advanced-algebra project in her sophomore year that she defended, Ph.D.-style, before a panel of adult judges—she was accepted to several of CUNY’s four-year campuses. Now, she’s a junior at one of them, Hunter College, carrying a 3.0 grade point average and aiming for veterinary school.

“I’m glad they could really see me and what I can do,” Krouser said.

Schools that use projects and performance assessments often carry an outsized burden of explaining themselves to colleges to make sure admissions officers fully understand their students’ applications.

Jerome Furman, Krouser’s high school counselor, embraces his role as explainer-in-chief. He cultivates relationships with college admissions officers and spends time describing the projects his students undertake and the nontraditional way their mastery is assessed.

“There really can be a gate there as far as getting my kids seen unless I have a relationship with someone” in the admissions office, Furman said.

Changing Transcripts

Part of Furman’s job is making sure colleges have—and understand—Eastside High’s “school profile.” The profile is a standard high school document that’s sent to colleges with students’ applications. It captures the school in a concise page or two, explaining details such as the curriculum, grading system, and demographic makeup of the community.

A project based in New England has designed model profiles to help schools that use performance assessments convey their work clearly to colleges. They’ve also designed model transcripts to reflect the nature of students’ work in performance-based schools.

Both models were created with feedback from colleges, said David Ruff, the executive director of the Great Schools Partnership, which is supporting the project undertaken by the New England Secondary Schools Consortium and the New England Board of Higher Education.

The new model transcript provides more detailed information than ordinary transcripts. It uses a 1-4 grading scale for students’ courses. But it also provides grades for crosscutting skills, like problem-solving, and for mastery of specific standards within each subject. In English, for instance, students’ proficiency is graded separately in reading comprehension, reading interpretation, writing range, writing research, discussion, and presentation.

The New England consortium and higher-education board also have tackled a key concern of parents whose children attend performance-based high schools: If our children present nontraditional transcripts to colleges, will they have a tough time getting in?

The two organizations convened colleges and universities in New England a few years ago and got a resounding answer. Seventy-five public and private institutions signed pledges that students from performance-based schools would not be at a disadvantage in the admissions process.

“What we heard from these schools is that different transcripts weren’t a problem,” Ruff said. “Across the country today, colleges are already seeing transcripts that use A-F grading systems, or 0 to 100, or 1-2-3-4, or systems where there are A’s, B’s, and C’s, and no credit below a C. And transcripts from schools that use narrative descriptions.

“The key thing is that they need the transcripts explained to them,” Ruff said. “They just want to understand.”

Most schools that use performance assessments still make a crucial conversion for colleges: They use a letter or number-based grading system, Ruff said. Sending narrative descriptions of students’ work is “still a heavy lift” for all but a few, highly selective institutions, he said.

New kinds of transcripts and school profiles can help bridge that gap, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as Colleges Crack Open the Admissions Door to Consider Students’ Skills


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