College & Workforce Readiness

Do Student Projects Have a Role in College Admissions?

By Catherine Gewertz — February 06, 2018 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Marina del Rey, Calif.

A group of researchers has kicked off a new project to change college admissions by focusing more on students’ projects.

Called “Reimagining College Access,” the initiative is being led by the Learning Policy Institute and EducationCounsel, a Washington-based consulting firm. Its aim is to help colleges use more complex gauges of student learning—performance assessments—in admission, course placement, and advising.

The project has just gotten off the ground, with early conversations by experts organized into three task forces.

One focuses on creating standards, or a process, that colleges and universities can use to judge the quality of the portfolios, capstone projects, and other pieces of work students submit.

The idea is to create a shared system that enables quick “recognition” of project quality, the way 4s or 5s on Advanced Placement exams convey strong performance.

Another task force will build a network of states, districts, and higher education institutions that are already doing good work using such performance assessments, so they can serve as models to those interested in this approach.

The third task force is working on the digital puzzle of creating an online space to hold students’ work, and an accessible way to present it.

Project Preview

At a meeting of college counselors and admissions and enrollment professionals last month, leaders of the initiative shared an early mockup of what that online platform could look like.

The first page showed information that’s quicker and easier to digest, such as a student’s grade-point average, standardized test scores, class rank, and whether she played sports or joined the debate team.

There was also space to display the results of performance assessments given in high school, with descriptors such as “advanced,” “developing,” or “proficient,” in each subject.

An icon on the first page would let admissions officers click through to see a more detailed view of those high school performance assessments. They could watch a video, for instance, of the student presenting a major research project to a panel of judges, and defending his arguments, or examine the data on which he based his science project.

Leaders of the new initiative cast it as a natural and valuable extension of a growing interest in performance assessment in secondary school.

In a new report, they describe performance-assessment projects that have taken shape across the country in recent years, from New Hampshire’s widely followed statewide system and New York state’s longstanding performance standards consortium to California’s Envision Schools, a group of three charters that use a project-based learning approach, with students defending their research before panels of teachers and fellow students.

“Now we’re at the moment where we have to figure out how to communicate to colleges what these students have learned,” Linda Darling-Hammond, the president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and a Stanford University education professor, told the conference, which was organized by the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, part of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.

Some colleges already include portfolios of student work in their admissions process, but the new initiative aims to increase those ranks. It imagines the expansion not only as a way to make college admission more authentic and meaningful, but also to support the use of performance assessment—and the project-based learning it’s based on—in high schools.

Next Steps

A large-scale expansion faces powerful obstacles, though, and it took only a few minutes to showcase them at this meeting. After their presentation, Darling-Hammond and her two colleagues, Roneeta Guha and Peter Ross, asked conference attendees what it would take for them to adopt the new approach to admissions.

“Research,” said Stu Schmill, the dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT already permits students to submit “maker portfolios,” but Schmill said that before MIT would embrace the LPI’s system, he’d want a bit more validation.

“We believe [performance assessments] are important and would predict student success, but we need to demonstrate that,” he said.

Another admissions professional piped up from the crowd: “Resources.” Amy Wittmayer, who oversees admissions in a graduate accounting program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said that reviewing portfolios is labor intensive, and with so many candidates to review, staff capacity is an issue. “That’s a very real obstacle to this,” she said.

Then from the front row came another voice: “The absence of leadership and guts to implement this. That’s the real problem,” said Youlanda Copeland-Morgan, the vice provost for enrollment management at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The new initiative is one of several that have taken shape in recent years to reshape college admissions. In the wake of a backlash against standardized testing, most seek to downplay the importance of test results and put more emphasis on types of learning, and student attributes, that they consider more important and meaningful.

Making Caring Common, launched in 2016 by Harvard University’s graduate school of education, seeks greater attention to students’ character in admission, such as how they’ve contributed to their families and their communities.

The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, which also began in 2016, is a push by elite institutions to pay special attention to admitting and supporting students from traditionally underserved groups. Its 130-plus members share a common application that includes a digital “locker” of student work.

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Do Student Projects Have a Role in College Admissions?

Events

School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness 'I Didn't Really Learn Anything': Graduates Face College After Pandemic Disruptions
Recent graduates are heading to college after spending much of their high school careers dealing with pandemic upheaval.
5 min read
Angel Hope works on a math problem, part of an intense six-week summer bridge program for students of color and first-generation students at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, Wis., July 27, 2022. Hundreds of thousands of recent graduates are heading to college this fall after spending more than half their high school careers dealing with the upheaval of a pandemic. Hope says he didn't feel ready for college after online classes in high school caused him to fall behind but says the bridge classes made him feel more confident.
Angel Hope works on a math problem as part of an intense six-week summer bridge program for students of color and first-generation students at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, Wis., July 27.
Carrie Antlfinger/AP
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion How to Make College More Affordable? Try the Charter School Model
A new organization is exploring how to make space for new colleges to emerge that also challenge the status quo.
6 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness In Their Own Words Stories of Tenacity: 3 First-Generation College-Bound Students Keep Their Dreams on Track
The pandemic upended college plans for more than a million young people, but not these seniors.
6 min read
Araceli Alarcon and Nathanael Severn, seniors at San Luis Obispo High School, pictured in downtown San Luis Obispo, Calif., on June 7, 2022.
Araceli Alarcon and Nathanael Severn, seniors at San Luis Obispo High School, in San Luis Obispo, Calif., will be the first in their families to attend college. While the pandemic complicated their plans, both teenagers persisted in their path to start college this fall.
Morgan Lieberman for Education Week
College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says 5 Ways to Make Online Credit Recovery Work Better for Struggling Students
Seven out of 10 districts use online programs for credit recovery.
5 min read
Image of person's hands using a laptop and writing in a notebook
Chonlachai/Getty