Assessment Opinion

An Open Invitation to College Presidents

By Contributing Blogger — May 06, 2014 5 min read
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This post is by Bob Lenz, founder and chief of innovation at Envision Education

In my March 20th post on this blog, I suggested that we toss the SAT entirely, replacing it with a national online deeper learning assessment system, on the premise that only actual student work demonstrates real readiness for college. Most of our leading thinkers in education today understand that while the purpose of the SAT is to give college admissions officers a way to measure a student’s ability to succeed at their institutions, the SAT is not measuring the most important indicators that will determine that success.

Our students need and deserve better ways to show what they are capable of.

But it seems as if the SAT will be with us for a while longer, given that David Coleman and the College Board are headlong into yet another revamp of this outdated and ineffectual tool. If we are truly going to give students what they need, we will have to find for other ways to do so.

Here’s one idea: How about getting college presidents to agree to a College Entrance Portfolio experiment? These schools would agree to admit a certain percentage of students based on performance assessments, bypassing the SAT altogether and giving students concrete ways to demonstrate what they know and can do. Colleges could set parameters such as:

  • 5 percent of a freshman class will be admitted using the alternative application system.
  • Participating colleges could create an online Common Application Portfolio portal, to which students can upload their work one time for multiple institutions.
  • The first round review of each student’s materials could be conducted and certified by a third party, which could also “badge” the work as a way to organize and begin to evaluate it.
  • Each college or university could create Review Committees that would include members of the faculty. We often consult professors to help us understand what skills are missing in their students. This committee would instead engage them before students arrive on campus in identifying those who are ready to do college-level work. This would be a unique and powerful way to get university faculty and admissions offices on the same page.

This is not an entirely novel concept; there are colleges moving in this direction. Here are a few, along with descriptions taken from their websites, describing their alternative admissions processes:

  • Lewis & Clark College: “Since 1991, Lewis & Clark’s Test-Optional Portfolio Path has allowed students to achieve a more personal representation in the admissions process. Designed to reinforce success in the classroom, the test-optional path allows an applicant to provide an academic portfolio demonstrative of the student’s intellectual curiosity, depth and breadth of curriculum, and overall preparation for college work. Students who choose this option still submit the Common Application and other required documents. Applicants may choose whether or not to include standardized test scores in their applications.”

  • Brandeis University: “Brandeis has a test-flexible policy and no longer requires that domestic applicants submit SAT or ACT scores for the purposes of admission. This policy allows applicants to decide for themselves whether their test results accurately reflect their academic ability and potential and is consistent with recommendations from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.”

  • Bard College: “The Bard Entrance Examination offers a new way to apply to Bard that bypasses existing standardized tests and admission processes, leveling the playing field among applicants worldwide. The examination enables motivated students to gain admission through an essay test, engaging applicants in a process that more closely mirrors actual college coursework.”

    The Bard Entrance Examination consists of four 2500-word research papers; applicants can choose from 21 possible topics and use Bard’s considerable academic resources to do the research. Students can be admitted to Bard, one of the most prestigious liberal arts schools in the country, on the basis of these research papers alone.

    The New York Times published an article in September 2013 about the Bard Entrance Exam. In it, Leon Botstein, the school’s president, says this: “It’s kind of declaring war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions and the failure to foreground the curriculum and learning,” Saying the prevailing system was “loaded with a lot of nonsense that has nothing to do with learning,” he called their alternative a “return to basics, to common sense” and added, “You ask the young person: are they prepared to do university-level work?”

    Last year, Bard admitted 17 students using this system. No doubt, this year, that number will go up.

Clearly, there are college presidents and admissions officers who understand that students need more and better options for applying to college. These schools understand that an “impressive” high school resume, with all the right numbers and activities on it, isn’t the only thing that points to a curious mind, ready to learn.

I invite college presidents to consider taking these models to the next level and working together to reach more students with alternative application processes. Such an effort would raise the profile of deeper learning, while helping students and families find more relevant and integral ways to get to college.

And it could be the start of something big. What would happen if students found out they had a better chance of getting in to college by doing deeper learning? Would they be more motivated to dive deep into their classes? Would they find the work more meaningful than cramming for standardized testing? Would they--and their parents--demand that their schools and teachers give them opportunities to create learning artifacts they could include in a College Entrance Portfolio? And would teachers increasingly ask their students to create works that could be used later to demonstrate college readiness?

My assumption, of course, is that all of the above would happen if students were connecting real skills and real work with achieving the very real goal of getting into college. Suddenly, the steps of the long journey to college will make sense, as students start to understand that what they are doing in high school will help them do well in college. Professors (and the schools where they teach) need students to come to college with critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills, and with the right academic mindsets; this model would encourage students to reflect on and describe precisely those abilities and perspectives. They would come to college with a greater understanding of what higher education will ask of them. And with all of that in place, college success--the ultimate goal of education--is sure to rise.

What do you say, college presidents? Who’s in?

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