Posted on January 17, 2013

‘Noncognitive’ Measures: The Next Frontier in College Admissions

Eric Hoover, The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 14, 2013


Every year, presidents and professors expect freshmen who are curious, determined, and hungry for challenges. The traditional metrics of merit, however, can’t reveal such qualities. Standardized-test scores may or may not predict a given student’s long-term potential. Grade-point averages present only a partial view of an applicant’s talents and work habits. And so, some admissions officers say, it’s time for a new set of tools.

Over the last decade, a handful of colleges have designed “noncognitive” assessments to measure attributes — like leadership and the ability to meet goals — that content-based tests do not. Succeeding in college often requires initiative and persistence, or what some researchers call “grit.” Noncognitive measures are an attempt to gauge such qualities. If the SAT asks what a student has learned, these assessments try to get at how she learned it.


Imagining a new system, however, is easier than building one. What should the 21st-century college consider? How much can noncognitive assessments — typically in the form of self-evaluations and short essays — really tell a college? And are they reliable?

Admissions officials plan to weigh those questions this week at a national conference sponsored by the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice. The conference, “Attributes That Matter: Beyond the Usual in College Admission and Success,” will include experts in noncognitive aspects of learning, which represent the next frontier in holistic admissions.

Jerome A. Lucido, the center’s executive director, predicts that new measures of student potential will eventually become fixtures in higher education, allowing admissions officers to conduct more-robust reviews of applicants, while giving colleges valuable data on those who enroll.


As David T. Conley explains in a forthcoming commentary piece in Education Week, researchers and psychometricians once paid relatively little attention to aspects of learning deemed noncognitive, the default term for “everything that was not grounded in or directly derived from rational thought.” So educators saw a hierarchy, with cognitive skills on top and noncognitive attributes at the bottom.

Mr. Conley, a professor of education at the University of Oregon, is one of several researchers who hope to change that perception. The relationship between the what and how of learning, he argues, is less hierarchical and more symbiotic. Sure, he says, students use their brains when they recall how to solve a mathematics problem. Just as they did to achieve the difficult and frustrating task of learning the math formula in the first place.

“It’s time to think about noncognitive dimensions of learning as forms of thinking in and of themselves,” Mr. Conley writes.

To that end, he proposes replacing “noncognitive” with the term “metacognitive learning skills.” A name change, he argues, could help legitimize the development of new assessments.


The notion that test scores and GPAs tell too little of an applicant’s tale has long worried admissions officers. Even those who groan at reading a zillion personal statements and letters of recommendation insist that such documents can provide helpful insights, a glimpse behind all those numbers.

Although noncognitive assessments are supposed to do the same, there’s no consensus on how best to get at students’ intangible qualities. With no gold standard, researchers are dabbling in an array of approaches. The College Board has tested a standardized way to measure 12 qualities, such as artistic and cultural appreciation, and integrity. The Educational Testing Service has created the Personal Potential Index, an online system allowing evaluators to rate applicants in six categories, including communication skills and teamwork. A means of standardizing letters of recommendation, the index has caught on at some graduate schools and may have a future in undergraduate admissions.

For now, most noncognitive assessments are homegrown experiments, exciting yet challenging. {snip}

In 2004 the university added to its application the Insight Résumé, six short-answer questions based on the research of William E. Sedlacek, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Maryland at College Park and pioneer of noncognitive assessment. One prompt asks applicants to describe how they overcame a challenge; another, to explain how they’ve developed knowledge in a given field.

The answers, scored on a 1-to-3 scale, inform admissions decisions in borderline cases, of applicants with less than a 3.0 GPA. {snip}

The Insight Résumé is a work in progress, Mr. Buckley says. Reading 17,000 sets of essays requires a lot of time and training. Meanwhile, he believes the addition has helped Oregon State attract more-diverse applicants, but it’s hard to know for sure. A recent analysis found that although the scores positively correlated with retention and graduation rates, they did not offer “substantive improvements in predictions” of students’ success relative to other factors, especially high-school GPAs.


Elsewhere, proponents of noncognitive assessments say such tools will become more necessary as applicant pools grow more diverse: Many underrepresented minority students struggle on the SAT but excel in other ways.