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NACAC 2019: the Challenge of Comparing Students

The Applerouth team and I recently attended the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). We go every year to stay current on trends in the world of college admissions, choosing our preferred educational breakout sessions to learn from experts, admissions officers, and counselors on a variety of topics that affect our students. This year I attended a series of breakouts that focused predominantly on how colleges select their students and make comparisons between applicants to build an incoming class. Here are my takeaways from these sessions.

Profiles, Grade Distributions, Recommendations, Oh My!

We live in a time where grade inflation is the rule, and A’s have become easier than ever to attain. Most high schools no longer share student rankings, so colleges have to work to determine where students fall in the academic pecking order. This session showcased the efforts of high schools to effectively communicate the relative strengths of their students to colleges. 

With every transcript sent to a college comes the high school profile, which contains information about the demographics of the school, its curriculum offerings and requirements, its grading system and distribution, and its testing ranges. An important takeaway from this session: it is important for high schools to signal their students’ academic strength by including grading distribution information

Kent Rinehart, Dean of Admissions at Marist College in New York, explained that his office receives over 11,000 applications from students from 2,800 different high schools every academic year. If the admissions office doesn’t understand whether a 90 average is at the top or bottom of a given high school’s class, they “have no choice” but go to test scores to draw distinctions between students. Debra Johns, Associate Director of Admissions at Yale, added that “the more information you give us, the fewer assumptions we have to make.” 

Ellen O’Neill Deitrich, Director of College Counseling at the Hill School in Pottstown, PA, showed the academic context that the Hill School provides to colleges, including how many A’s, B’s, C’s, and other grades are given per class. The Hill School also shows colleges what a rigorous schedule looks like for its students.¹

Recommendations played a very important role for the admissions office at Marist and at Yale. Johns spoke of the attributes Yale looks for in recommendations, including whether an applicant demonstrates intellectual curiosity, grit, community engagement, inclusivity and open-mindedness. A student without a counselor recommendation is at a major disadvantage. Last year there were 36,859 applications to Yale and only 870 applicants applied without a counselor recommendation According to Johns, Yale admitted only 14 out of that group. Rinehart similarly stated that of the 11,400 applicants to Marist, 233 had no letters of recommendation and only 30 of these students were accepted, at a significantly lower rate than the general pool of students.

The Importance of Context in the College Admissions Process

In this session, David Coleman, CEO of the College Board, came to discuss the College Board’s use of its “Adversity Score” (recently rebranded as Landscape) to provide demographic data about a student’s school and neighborhood. Numerous college admissions officers spoke about their use of Landscape as a helpful tool in their admissions process. Pomona College and the University of Michigan reported significant increases in admission for lower-income students through the use of this tool. 

Coleman mentioned that within the year, the College Board would be sharing Landscape data directly with students and families to create more transparency. He also defended the decision to break the single score into a distinct neighborhood and school score. In some cases, these numbers diverge, and presenting the data separately creates a more “nuanced understanding” of the student’s situation. Coleman cited that in 2019, colleges will receive 10 million applications from 30,000 high schools and argued that Landscape can efficiently provide valuable context to admissions officers across the country.

Assessing Character and Noncognitive factors in College Admissions and Beyond

There is a growing interest in admissions offices all over the country in moving beyond the standard numeric metrics – GPA, AP count, test scores – to integrate more data on the character of applicants. The wide-spread interest in this shift was highlighted in 2016’s Turning the Tide, a report endorsed by 200 colleges about reducing excessive achievement pressure and elevating the focus on meaningful contributions and ethical character. This session highlighted a variety of efforts to assess character and incorporate it into admissions decisions.

The Enrollment Management Association has developed a Character Skills Snapshot. Launched in 2017, the Snapshot has been tested on 16,000 students and is accepted by several hundred secondary schools, in concert with the SSAT. The test consists of 26 forced-choice questions assessing the following traits: Initiative, Intellectual engagement, Open-mindedness, Resilience, Self-control, Social Awareness and Teamwork.

Sam Rikoon, an Educational Testing Service research scientist noted that one of the major issues with these assessments is the risk of “socially desirable responding” or “faking good,” — when a respondent distorts their response because they want to create a favorable impression. Rikoon also spoke about using Situational Judgment Tests, which measure how a person responds to problematic situations, as another means of measuring character and predicting academic performance.

A researcher in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Trisha Ross Anderson, discussed the Making Caring Common project and her efforts to develop a character assessment for use in college admissions. Anderson also discussed the Character Collaborative, a group of 74 member schools (including MIT, the University of Chicago, Emory, and Georgia Tech) interested in integrating elements of character into the admissions process. One of its members, Swarthmore College, lists the character traits it is seeking from its students directly on its website, from generosity towards others to open-mindedness

A number of research teams, including the University of Pennsylvania’s Character Lab, led by renowned thinkers such as Dr. Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth, the University of Chicago, and the University of Minnesota are pushing forward new research on character. Although these schools and organizations may be approaching the research in different ways, they share a common goal: to integrate the assessment of character into the admissions process in an objective and consistent fashion, to develop resources for admissions personnel and then train universities on how to effectively use these tools.

Moving Beyond GPA: Using the Mastery Transcript to Drive Equity

This session focused on shifting away from the traditional model of comparing students using GPA and towards measuring students on mastery of skills and content. The new Mastery Transcript (demo available online) is based on a wheel that can be tweaked by individual high schools to illustrate the skills, or mastery credits, they want to emphasize, such as “citizenship,” “decision-making” and “social, cultural and historical fluency.” It organizes the content without assigning any grades. Admissions offices can click on the attributes to see a credit profile and gain more insight into individual credits. 

The new Mastery Transcript will actually be used for the first time this admissions cycle. Four schools – the Enosburg Falls High School in Vermont, the Forest School in Georgia, the Gibson Ek High School in Washington, and the Pathways School in Wisconsin – will be sending out Mastery Transcripts to colleges across the country in a matter of months. Many more schools are contemplating making the move to this new transcript in the future. 

Many counselors who were exploring the use of the Mastery Transcript in their high schools were in attendance. The Khan Lab School in California spoke of their efforts to get buy-in for the new form of assessment and Marin Academy, north of San Francisco, is rethinking its teaching and assessment methods. Some younger schools are more agile and experimental and able to adopt the mastery approach more readily. More established schools are taking a two-pronged approach, allowing some students to have a conventional transcript and allowing others to opt in to a Mastery Transcript model. The Hawken School of Ohio will open a mastery school within its traditional school, and the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts is exploring the school-within-a-school concept with its new Tang Institute.

On the college side, questions were raised about whether Mastery Transcripts would integrate cleanly with Slate and other technologies important to college counseling offices. Many questioned how colleges would allocate merit-based aid, which is typically dependent upon quantitative measures, like GPA and test scores, rather than qualitative measures of competency. In Georgia, students are typically eligible for the Hope Scholarship as long as they maintain a 3.0 GPA. Without a GPA, how can students earn these kinds of scholarships? 

Representatives from the Mastery Transcript Consortium acknowledged the paradigm shift inherent in their approach. They believe creating these changes at the college admissions level would open up so much innovation at the high school level. But some in attendance predicted that college admissions officers would ultimately be forced to draw a GPA from this mastery wheel, for the sake of comparing students in order to allocate scarce seats. It is no easy task to shift from a paradigm of grades and numbers and mathematical comparisons to something so new and radical. 

This paradigm shift involves massive training of teachers to use this new assessment form and admissions counselors to read them. There must be buy-in on both sides. This transition away from numeric GPA would be revolutionary. There are years and years of work ahead before we see if this really gets traction necessary to shift the educational landscape.


Admissions officers and educators are contemplating new and better ways to assess students, taking into account the relative strength of their academic achievement, socio-economic status and character. Innovators are looking to break free from the dominant paradigm which privileges the easily measurable metrics – such as GPA, AP count, and testing – over non-quantifiable character traits. Can we create reliable and valid measures of character? Can we move entirely beyond GPA towards a mastery model of assessment? High schools and colleges across the country are exploring ways of redesigning instruction, assessment and admissions, and time will tell if these early efforts leave a lasting mark in the education space. 

¹ For example, at the Hill School 57 students took a rigorous scheduling consisting of 5-8 AP courses in the period measured by O’Neill. The most rigorous schedule consists of 9-12 AP courses, and only 21 students achieved that designation during the same period.

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