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In new book, former dean Sternberg discusses an evolving approach to admissions

Published: Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Updated: Tuesday, December 7, 2010 01:12

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Former Dean of Arts and Sciences Robert Sternberg recently published a book, “College Admissions for the Twenty-First Century,” that discusses Tufts’ admissions program.


Uploading videos to YouTube, drawing comic book strips and imagining a world in which Joan of Arc is trapped at a desk job are not exactly the type of tasks that one typically associates with college applications. At Tufts, however, these are exactly the kinds of topics on which applicants are routinely evaluated.

Thanks to Kaleidoscope, an experimental admissions program that debuted in 2007, led by renowned psychologist and former Dean of Arts and Sciences Robert Sternberg, admissions officers take into account abilities that fall outside the realm of test scores and grade point averages.

Sternberg, a leading researcher on intelligence and creativity who stepped down at the end of the spring semester to become the provost at Oklahoma State University, recently described the changing face of admissions in his new book, "College Admissions for the Twenty-First Century," published in October. He hopes that other colleges will soon catch on to these less-than-traditional application processes.

He began to notice that something was askew with the way college admissions operated during his time at Yale University, he told the Daily.

"When I was special assistant to the dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale way back when, I noticed that some students who were admitted with extremely high test scores would come to the university, and one would think that they cheated on the tests or had someone else take the tests for them or had had brain damage over the summer," he said. "Other students with more modest scores seemed to do just fine.

"Of course, that is not to say that the test scores were all wrong — not at all," he continued. "But there were enough anomalous cases that I started to wonder whether the standardized tests were somehow incomplete or even misguided."

Sternberg maintains that institutions today rely far too heavily on SAT scores and GPAs — measures that don't adequately assess a student's full capabilities — while often ignoring skill sets that are based in creativity, analytics and practicality.

"The problem is not that we give tests, but rather that we give tests that measure such a narrow band of intellectual skills," Sternberg said. "I would be perfectly content to give tests if they measured more of the qualities that students will need to become positive leaders who make a meaningful and enduring difference to the world — creative, analytical, practical and wisdom-based skills, including ethical judgment.

"Tests like the SAT and the ACT measure only the analytical skills," he continued. "They are unfortunately quite limited in the skills they assess."

Sternberg believes that there are other useful skills standardized tests fail to acknowledge.

"We can do a much better job of college admissions, as well as instruction and assessment, if we think about student abilities in a broader way than we have — in particular by valuing, assessing and teaching for analytical, creative, practical and wisdom-based skills as well as for memory," he writes in his book. "To succeed in school and in life, one needs creative skills to generate new ideas, analytical skills to ascertain whether they are good ideas, practical skills to execute the ideas and to persuade others of their worth, and wisdom-based skills to ensure that the ideas help attain a common good, not just selfish gain."

Sternberg integrated his ideas about intelligence into Kaleidoscope, making the Class of 2011 the first group to encounter these new applications. The experimental program added optional questions to the Tufts application, asking candidates to use an 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of paper to create something, or to imagine a world in which history had gone somewhat differently.

Questions were designed to identify candidates who were creative, had practical skills and wisdom and were knowledgeable about how to promote these skills for the greater good, according to Sternberg.

He said that, while some have questioned the program's objectivity, Kaleidoscope's evaluation system is impartial. The new essay questions are evaluated based on scoring rubrics that require adequate training on how to use them, he said in a Nov. 21 piece in The Washington Post; admissions officers can judge creativity, for example, based on how original and compelling responses are.

"Lee Coffin — who is one of the leading deans of admissions in the country — has done a superb job … in training admissions officers to rate holistically and in a way that is valid in predicting future academic and extracurricular performance at the university," Sternberg said.

Another benefit of the program is that it virtually eliminates ethnic group differences, unlike standardized tests that often vary due to differences in education, first language and home environment, he said.

"No test is completely ‘fair,'" Sternberg said. "But the advantage of Kaleidoscope is that, in measuring qualities that are important for positive leadership, it goes beyond just the narrow skills that conventional tests assess."

Sternberg's research found that Kaleidoscope greatly reduces ethnic differences.

"The reason is that diverse ethnic groups emphasize different skills in their folk conceptions of intelligence," he said. "By assessing a broader base of skills, a college gives more of a chance to students from diverse ethnic groups.

"Our results from Kaleidoscope were quite favorable," he continued. "Kaleidoscope scores predict both academic and leadership, extracurricular success at Tufts with no ethnic group differences."

While Tufts has had much success with the Kaleidoscope program as a predictor of college success, many other universities have been slow to catch on to this new method of college admissions.

"Still other schools just chug along doing the same kind of stuff as always," Sternberg said. "Current tests such as the SAT are not much different from such tests of a century ago. Imagine what the world would be like today if medical technology, computational technology and telecommunications technology were fundamentally unchanged from 100 years ago."

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