A new reason to consider holistic admissions

Daily Briefing

A new reason to consider holistic admissions

As more and more K-12 schools replace standardized end-of-course tests with projects and portfolios, college admissions officers must learn to assess “more complex forms of student work,” writes Catherine Gewertz for Education Week.

“Performance-based assessments can generate a wealth of information for colleges about what could make a student successful there,” says 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,” as college admissions offices are accustomed to processing applications in a swift, formulaic way, he adds.

In fact, many educators fear that K-12 adoption of performance-based assessments will make it harder for students to get into college, writes Gewertz.

Several small, private colleges have already adopted holistic admissions, which emphasize evaluating an applicant as a complete person—including intangibles such as their personality traits and soft skills. But most large public universities still admit students based on test scores and transcripts, notes Gewertz.

The New York Performance Standards Consortium, a network of high schools that use project-based learning and performance assessments, is trying to change that.

In a 2015 pilot, the consortium encouraged the City University of New York‘s (CUNY) four-year institutions to review consortium student projects and work portfolios as part of the admissions process. CUNY campuses found that students admitted through the pilot program, including students whose SAT scores fell below the minimum cutoffs, earned grades that were comparable with—or even higher than—the average New York City student.

The pilot allowed admissions offices to “encounter applicants they wouldn’t have encountered before,” says Micelle Fine, a CUNY professor who is analyzing data from the pilot. Even more, the results of the pilot suggest that students’ performance assessments may be accurate predictors of their future college success.

But outside of the CUNY pilot, K-12 schools that use performance assessments “often carry an outsized burden of explaining themselves to colleges to make sure admissions officers fully understand their students’ applications,” Gewertz points out.

“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, notes Jerome Furman, a counselor at Eastside Community High, a consortium school in New York City.

That’s why the Great Schools Partnership, a project by the New England Secondary Schools Consortium and the New England Board of Higher Education, is working to design model transcripts for consortium schools to help them convey students’ performance-based work to colleges.

The transcripts designed by the partnership often provide more detailed information than traditional transcripts. They include grades not only for courses, but also for skills, such as problem-solving. “What we heard from these schools is that different transcripts weren’t a problem,” says David Ruff, the executive director of the Great Schools Partnership. “The key thing is that they need the transcripts explained to them,” he adds. “They just want to understand” (Gewertz, Education Week, 2/5).

Related: Are the students you want the students who want you?

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