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Character Assessment: A Growing Trend in Boarding School – Part 2

As recent psychological research has reached mainstream vernacular, Thomas Sheppard, Dean of Enrollment Management at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, has noticed that boarding school candidates, through essays or interviews, are increasingly prepared to speak directly to some of the character traits that bode well for lifelong pursuit of goals. This is a likely reflection, he suggests, of grammar schools incorporating the language into their educational philosophies, as well as admission officers having a deeper understanding of what values will help a child thrive in a given educational environment. 

Indeed, independent schools nationwide are experimenting with both informal and formal ways to document evidence of character skills in their application process. Along the way, Sheppard says, “We need to make sure that we are speaking from a place of knowledge and research.”

Other schools feel the same, which has prompted a national initiative led by the Enrollment Management Association and the Educational Testing Services to create a “Character Skills Snapshot.” Representatives from 46 schools nationwide participated in creating the CSS. In the early phase of development, educators generated a list of 30 character traits commonly valued by schools. They then consolidated and refined that list to focus on initiative, open-mindedness, intellectual curiosity, responsibility, self-control, resilience, social competency, and teamwork. The resulting assessment contains scenario-based questions in which children either choose the response that is most like them or evaluate a response. This documents the test-taker’s current character tendencies. “These topics are already being discussed by admission officers, but with a wide range of variability,” explains Meghan Brenneman, Director of Character Assessment Programs for the Enrollment Management Association. “This tool gives schools a common language, and the questions have been tested, so we know they are actually measuring the identified traits.”

The first beta of the CSS was completed by 7,000 students at schools around the country. A second iteration was then completed by 4,400 students. The CSS has been tested with domestic and international students to minimize cultural bias. It has been reviewed to minimize the effect of cognitive learning differences. User testing has also involved parents to ensure their understanding of the CSS and to inform how data from a CSS will be reported. “This has been as thorough a process as I can imagine,” says Sheppard, whose school participated. “We didn’t want to create a high stakes test for which students need to study. This is one more tool to help us get a complete picture of kids and it is fascinating to see how these things can be measured in scientific ways.”

Brenneman echoes that sentiment. “The goal is triangulation—using multiple sources to get the information schools are seeking.”

What Families Can Expect

The Character Skills Snapshot is the first systematic, nationwide effort to develop a noncognitive assessment tool for wide use among independent secondary schools. The Enrollment Management Association plans an initial release in fall 2017, followed by a full-scale release in 2018. The frequency and method of its future use, however, is not yet clear.  Students may encounter the CSS as an optional, rather than a required, application step—and they may wonder how completing it furthers their application. The answer will vary by school. Some may see this instrument as another opportunity for students to demonstrate their values and readiness for boarding school. Others may use the data to inform dorm and advisor assignments. Still others may offer the CSS to students at different stages in their tenure to assess how well the school is teaching the character skills it deems important.

Charlotte Brownlee, Director of Admission and Enrollment at Cate School in California, says that what intrigues her the most about the CSS is the possibility of measuring a student’s growth over time. “At Cate, our goal is that by their senior year, each student has achieved the highest possible growth for themselves,” she explains. Brownlee can also imagine admission scenarios where worry that a candidate would struggle academically is offset by the demonstration of the core character skills to weather adversity.

Peter Gilbert, Director of Admission at Salisbury School in Connecticut, believes that tools like the CSS can help provide a holistic picture of students. “The more we know about students when they come in, the better we can support them,” he says. Gilbert also assures parents that even as boarding schools explore character during admission, they are not expecting students to be fully self-actualized. “These are malleable skills that can be developed. As educators, we appreciate students wherever they are.”

While neither Brownlee or Gilbert know if their schools will apply the CSS, both appreciated being part of the national process that led to its development. “Through our conversations, we saw a lot of commonalities in desired traits,” Brownlee says. “Yet every school also weighs qualities differently as defined by their missions.”

 “Joining into the noncognitive skills dialogue was a natural for us,” Gilbert says. “Our own mission statement names values like creativity, empathy, humility, integrity, and leadership.”

Thus we come full circle to the character-based missions of boarding schools. For decades these institutions have been incorporating character values as they sought to educate the whole child. Recent research is now providing the language to refine that work and externalize the discussion of those values throughout the admission process, offering even more opportunities for schools and families to communicate what they are about.

This column is Part 2 of an article that is being reprinted from MOFFLY MEDIA 2017-18 Independent School Guide.

Audrey Noyes Ludemann helps families seek independent school education, including day schools and boarding schools, from elementary to secondary grades. She also is an invaluable resource for addressing different learning styles—serving families whose students are gifted and/or have moderate learning differences. She can be reached at audrey@thebertramgroup.com