Noncognitive Measures Are ‘Not a Magic Wand’

Los Angeles — On Thursday night an admissions dean here asked me why I’d described noncognitive assessment as the “next frontier” in college admissions. That was presumptuous, he said, too optimistic.

I’d chosen the word “frontier” for a reason, I told him. Frontiers are places of promise and possibility, but they also abound with uncertainty. That’s a fair way of describing how many admissions deans view the prospect of using alternative measures of student potential. Nobody’s calling them a panacea.

At a conference here hosted by the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, many attendees have predicted that the future of college admissions will include more assessments of attributes not captured by standardized-test scores and grade-point averages. As science reveals more and more about what matters in learning, it follows that our measures of merit will evolve.

For now, a sense of new possibilities goes hand in hand with concerns. Patrick Kyllonen, senior research director of the Educational Testing Service’s Center for Academic and Workforce Readiness and Success, said noncognitive assessments could help colleges better serve students once they enroll—and help employers make better hiring decisions.

Yet such assessments, like conventional tests, are susceptible to coaching, Mr. Kyllonen said. Wherever tests go, test prep follows.

Pamela T. Horne, associate vice provost for enrollment management and dean of admissions at Purdue University, said she saw promise in noncognitive assessment. But she questioned whether, during a time of tight resources, many colleges could justify investing time and money in experimental measures. She also wondered about applicants: Would teenagers welcome more application requirements?

Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management at DePaul University, uttered the quote of the day when he said: “There is no silver bullet in trying to predict who’s going to do well.”

At DePaul, applicants who do not submit test scores must complete essays designed to measure noncognitive traits. Previously, the university required such essays, and the applicants’ scores have told the university a little—not a lot—about their chances of success, Mr. Boeckenstedt said.

Applicants with higher essay scores were retained at a higher rate than those with lower scores, regardless of their ACT scores, he said. But the high-school GPA remains the best predictor of first-year success at DePaul.

David Coleman, president of the College Board, called for realistic expectations. Despite research showing the predictive value of noncognitive measures, they don’t add much when combined with SAT or ACT scores, he said. ”They are not a magic wand.”

Noncognitive assessments might prove most useful in evaluating applicants with high grades and low test scores, and those with low grades and high test scores, Mr. Coleman suggested. The potential of noncognitive measures to reveal the talents of students who fall short on both counts struck him as less promising.

“The thought that with that double negative you’re going to get a positive,” he said, “is not realistic.”

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