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Broadening admissions to Higher Education

February 9, 2021

The pandemic has been really challenging for so many people, but K-12 students have had it particularly tough. Dr. Lisa Damour said in a New York Times article that "pandemic conditions are at cross-currents with normal adolescent development". The same article reported the results of a study, which found that young people from less stable financial situations had been particularly affected.

Just last week, we shared the story of Ayla, who struggled so much with the shift to online classes, that her grade average dropped too low to get into her chosen university course, and now has to repeat the year. We are hearing and seeing the same story repeated in so many countries and contexts.

To address the narrow entry requirements in universities and colleges, there is a move in many institutions towards what is sometimes referred to as contextual admissions. This is basically where the institution "relaxes" or "lowers" entry requirements for learners who come from more challenging situations.

However, is this the best we can do? To lower standards for learners is arguably a stigmatizing approach, with words such as "deprived" and "tough realities" being used. Surely this is an opportunity to think more seriously about broadening access and recognizing other ways of evidencing the skills, knowledge, and competencies to access a higher education course.

What criteria do admissions usually consider?

At present, the main routes are either grades or entrance exams. The SAT test in the USA claims to test language skills, intelligence, and the ability to problem-solve, and similar tests have been adopted in the UK to try to provide another entry pathway to higher education. These tests put test takers under enormous pressure to do well in a certain environment on a certain day.

There is no facility in these tests to measure non-cognitive skills, such as adaptability and positive self-concept, or even demonstrable things like leadership and contribution to the community. Why is the world clamoring for cognitive flexibility and teamwork abilities in graduates, but we narrow them down to one high-stakes test that doesn't even look at any of that?

The stakes are high. Until very recently, the thaanawiya amma entrance exam in Egypt was a test that everyone had to take to enter university. The high scores get you a place in the faculties of law, medicine, and architecture. The lower scores direct you to a career in music, social sciences, and...education.

Egypt has since replaced it with something similar to the SAT, with the encouraging inclusion of projects as part of the submission, but still heavily reliant on long-form answers to standardized questions and (yes this is still a thing) multiple-choice questions. No comment.

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What criteria should admissions consider?

There is no easy answer to this one. The answer varies depending on the type of institution for a start. The skills needed to prosper in some traditional universities are just the same as those required to get high grades in traditional K-12 schools.

Crossing over into a more learner-directed environment, however, will require something more. If you have learned to get ahead by cramming and memorizing in strictly segmented subjects, then transversal approaches to Project-Based Learning might take some adjustment. If your school set you every task, gave you little flexibility of choice, and generally set out the path for you, you cannot be blamed for struggling with being suddenly in the driver's seat.

The Rainbow project tried to expand the SAT with a new test that measured "creative, analytical and practical skills". If you wonder how practical skills could be measured, here is an example question from the test: "You've been assigned to work on a project for a day with a fellow employee whom you really dislike. He is rude, lazy and rarely does a proper job. What would be the best thing for you to do?" No comment.

Though the test did actually reduce some of the diversity issues in results, it is still a test on one day, for high stakes. We are not even going to get into the issue of whether we can "assess" creativity in a test, but if you have some spare time and want to start a burning argument on LinkedIn, we invite you to post that question on your feed and grab some popcorn.

The Ivy League Universities have some very broad methodologies for evaluating "character", as beautifully detailed in Malcolm Gladwell's article for the New Yorker. We can only imagine the difficulties in navigating subjectivity and bias in most of these approaches, despite the advances and progress they have made.

For the rest, the situation is broadly as it has been for many years. As the late Sir Ken Robinson famously put it, we don't need reformation, we need transformation. If we are listening to the overwhelming evidence that creativity, adaptability, resilience, self-direction, etc. are to be nurtured and supported in higher education, but the best we can do is to try to find yet another test to measure these things, then aren't we just tinkering at the edges?

If our answer to new ideas is to figure out how to test them, then we are not listening. Testing is top-down, and will always struggle to reflect the beautiful diversity of applicants and their own mosaics of experiences, stories, self-concepts, and idiosyncrasies. We can do much better.

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Doing better by a new generation of learners

The evidence is overwhelming that to flourish in true learning, whilst developing skills that an uncertain future will require of us, a system of standardized testing and a focus on grades just won't do. A more sustainable and circular economy is calling out for change, and companies are even circumventing higher education in access programs to top-level careers.

Alternative approaches to higher education are flourishing, though they still lack the subsidies and state support for students due to their non-conformity to centralized accreditation bodies. Recommendations have been repeatedly made that Universities should accept a learning portfolio as evidence of skills, knowledge, and competence, but adoption has been slow and often accepted only alongside, and not instead of, the more traditional scores and grades.

Learning portfolios might, for example, evidence social impact, leadership experiences, self-reflection on collaboration and growth, self-directed learning experiences evaluated in digital form, mixed media artifacts alongside a competency transcript, and the comments and insights of learning guides and peers.

Even mainstream schools are often well versed in Project-Based Learning and "skills for life" along with a number of hugely progressive approaches. The vanguard of progressive learning environments such as Learnlife and A School for Tomorrow is several steps ahead in transforming the existing paradigm and showing us all how things could be.

Is it time to let go? To listen to research, industry, employers, schools, learning guides, educators, and learners themselves? We already know how to support self-directed learning. We know how to support learners to flourish in pursuit of their passion, and to build the skills for an uncertain future along the way. Now, perhaps, it is time we stopped trying to fit that unimaginable breadth of experience into a test; into a single day.

Perhaps it is time to develop spaces, opportunities, and structures of support for learners to choose how to show us who they are and what they can do. If you have thoughts around this or are working towards these objectives, we would love to hear from you as we amplify the voices and the reach of the institutions and organizations that are taking us towards a bolder and brighter future.

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