What Is This Assessment Telling Me to Do?

College-entrance examinations give students a score—bravo, kid, you got a 1400!—and not much else. But a new wave of low-stakes assessments offers them guidance.

“Actionable information,” says Ross E. Markle, one of several representatives of the Educational Testing Service who visited The Chronicle on Thursday.

Mr. Markle, senior research and assessment adviser in ETS’s higher-education division, described the importance of ”noncognitive” attributes—such as a commitment to meeting goals—that predict success in college. He helped create SuccessNavigator, a new ETS product, to measure such qualities. The 30-minute online assessment was designed to help colleges advise students, especially those likely to struggle and drop out.

First, students rate their level of agreement with a series of statements (“I use a calendar to plan my school day,” “I am easily frustrated”). Their responses instantly generate a “skill profile,” a report that reveals the characteristics of students like them (“rarely uses strategies to manage time and assignments,” “often misses class or comes unprepared”). They also get tips (to visit the tutoring center, for instance) and links to other resources.

Academic advisers also get a copy of the report. Their version projects the range of a student’s first-year grade-point average, and his or her probability of returning to the institution for a second year.

Those snapshots of noncognitive strengths and weaknesses are meant to spark conversations between students and advisers—and to help them develop customized plans for success. “We’ve shifted from the era of access to the era of success,” Mr. Markle says. ”We need to treat noncognitive skills the way we treat everything else, and not think of them as this big, furry thing out in the ether.”

So far, 150 two- and four-year colleges are using the SuccessNavigator in some fashion, according to ETS. The University of New Mexico, for instance, has relied on the assessment to gauge the needs of incoming student-athletes. Many of the institutions, Mr. Markle says, are still figuring out how they might incorporate the assessment, for which ETS charges colleges $5 per student.

It’s worth remembering that all the state-of-the-art advising tools in the world can’t make up for weak or stretched-thin advisers. The colleges with the most at-risk students are often those with the fewest resources to spread around.

Still, SuccessNavigator is one symbol of the growing interest in noncognitive measurements. I’ve written about the difficulty of using them in the high-stakes realm of college admissions (here and here).

But noncognitive assessments are likely to play an increasingly large role in the lives of students after they enroll. One reason: Such tools can provide feedback that entrance tests, built for a different purpose, cannot.

And if you’re really, really into all this, check out this article I wrote, for Nautilus, about the concept of feedback and standardized tests.

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