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Testing College Applicants’ Wisdom, Common Sense

What good is a high SAT score if you make a mess of your life? For a possible answer, peer into Robert Sternberg's book, "College Admissions for the 21st Century."

As a small boy he was ignored and passed over by his teachers — he scored poorly on IQ tests and was obviously going nowhere. Ever since, Robert Sternberg, the new provost and senior vice president of Oklahoma State University, former dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, former professor of psychology at Yale University and summa cum laude Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale, has been on a mission: He doesn't want it to happen to anyone else.

"In the 1950s, when I was growing up," Sternberg said in his new book, College Admissions for the 21st Century, "the elementary school I attended gave group IQ tests every couple of years. As a result of my low scores, my teachers thought I was stupid, and I did too. They never came out and told us our IQ scores, but one could tell from the way teachers acted. In first grade, I was a mediocre student, which made my teachers happy because they got what they expected. I in turn was happy that they were happy, and in the end, everyone was quite happy. By second grade, I was slightly worse as a student, and in third grade, still worse."

Sternberg was lucky. A fourth-grade teacher with high expectations saved him from being labeled as a perennial loser, and he began to get straight A's. He went on to make his name as a psychologist who challenged mainstream notions about human intelligence, testing and ability. In his book, Sternberg argues that the SAT and ACT, the standard achievement and ability tests required for college admission, are too narrowly focused on memorization and analytical skills to predict leadership in today's world. Also, he says, the scores on these tests correlate highly with socioeconomic class, unfairly penalizing students whose families can't pay for tutors.

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Meanwhile, grade-point averages, or, the numbers that typically count most in getting accepted to college, do not reflect the different academic standards of different high schools. GPAs can be inflated, too, and so can letters of recommendation. What's needed, Sternberg said, is a more inclusive approach that would incorporate these traditional yardsticks but also try to identify students who are good critical thinkers or who are practical, creative or wise. "Why should a four-hour standardized test taken under intense pressure count more than years of effort and dedication?" he asks.

"Academic knowledge alone will not get one through; the world simply changes too quickly," Sternberg said. "...Those whose talents and abilities are not well recognized by the current system may well be tomorrow's inventors, community leaders and generators of fresh ideas in the arts, music, business and the sciences — if we only learn to recognize their potential and give them the education they need to shine."

Sternberg's book comes out at a time when achievement testing in the U.S. is more prevalent than ever. The national No Child Left Behind program, enacted in 2001, rewards the schools that show improvement on standardized tests and punishes those that don't. In Sternberg's view, U.S. education is going in the wrong direction. He believes in fostering what he calls "successful intelligence," which he defines as the ability to succeed in life. A person who has this ability can adapt to changing circumstances, come up with novel ideas and persuade others to accept them, Sternberg said.

"In the end," he said, "no one is good at everything, and no one is bad at everything. People who are successfully intelligent are those who figure out their strengths and find a way to capitalize on them."

Sample Questions

Here is a sample of optional Kaleidoscope questions from past applications for admission to Tufts University:

• The human narrative is replete with memorable characters like America's Johnny Appleseed, ancient Greece's Perseus or the Fox Spirits of East Asia. Imagine one of humanity's storied figures is alive and working in the world today. Why does Joan of Arc have a desk job? Would Shiva be a general or a diplomat? Is Quetzalcoatl trapped in a zoo? In short, connect your chosen figure to the contemporary world and imagine the life he/she/it might lead.

• Kermit the Frog famously lamented, "It's not easy being green." Do you agree?

• Create a short story using one of the following topics:
a. The end of MTV
b. Confessions of Middle School Bully
c. Toast
d. Seventeen Minutes Ago

• Use an 8.5 x 11-inch sheet of paper to create something. You can blueprint your future home, create a new product, draw a cartoon strip, design a costume or theatrical set, compose a score, or do something entirely different. Let your imagination wander.

• Engineers and scientists like astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble discover new solutions to contemporary issues. "Equipped with his five senses," Hubble said, "man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science." Using your knowledge of scientific principles, identify "an adventure" in science you would like to pursue and tell us how you investigate it.

Electronically reproduced by permission of the publisher from College Admissions for the 21st Century by Robert J. Sternberg, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright c 2010

Many colleges today have adopted a system of flexible admissions, in which they go beyond test scores to look at a student's background, artistic ability, scientific accomplishments and service work. Sternberg believes that the program he developed at Tufts, the Kaleidoscope Project, can augment that approach to increase student diversity.

Kaleidoscope is an extra section on the Tufts college application, a voluntary take-home test that about two-thirds of prospective students elect to complete. In a given year, they may choose to write a 400-word story titled, "Drama at the Prom"; analyze a favorite novel or film; draw a cartoon or compose a musical score; write an open letter to the president, submit a one-minute video about themselves on YouTube or imagine what Joan of Arc would be doing if she were alive today.

Kaleidoscope does not replace merit-based college admissions, Sternberg said; it expands them. It does not bar high-achievers from admission or lower the bar so that low-achievers can squeak by. According to the U.S. News & World Report's 2011 college rankings (which Sternberg abhors), Tufts is one of the 30 most selective colleges in the U.S., admitting only one out of every four students who apply.

Kaleidoscope has proved most helpful, Sternberg said, in helping admissions officers choose among the upper middle group of applicants. He noted that the mean SAT scores of the incoming freshman class at Tufts have improved every year since Kaleidoscope was introduced, and so has student body diversity. In the first year of its implementation, for the Class of 2011, Tufts admitted 30 percent more African Americans and 15 percent more Latinos than the year before. Today, people of color represent about 26 percent of the undergraduate student body of 5,000.

"We need diversity in our colleges and universities to teach students to understand, appreciate and even value viewpoints other than their own," Sternberg said. "...Parents sometimes fail to realize that, when they send their children away to college, they are paying as much for the fellow students their child will meet as they are for the professors and campus facilities."

When he was at Yale, Sternberg developed the Rainbow Project, in which 800 students at 15 schools, including high schools, community colleges and four-year colleges, were tested for creativity, practicality and critical thinking. Rainbow was a multiple-choice test administered by a proctor, and, in addition, students were asked to write a short story, tell a story out loud based on a picture collage, plan a route by map and solve hypothetical workplace problems. According to Sternberg, Rainbow proved to be twice as effective as SAT scores in predicting students' success in the first year of college, and 50 percent more effective in predicting success than SATs and high school GPAs together.

Academics alone do not produce good leaders, Sternberg said: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both Yale graduates, made a mess of their presidencies; the "best and the brightest" cabinet members of the 1960s led the U.S. into the quagmire of Vietnam; and the "once brilliant" Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld led the country into the quagmire of Iraq. Even the recent Wall Street debacle, Sternberg said, can be traced back in part to a bad educational system, one that produced individuals with "excellent grades at terrific business schools" but with no ethics or common sense or sense of the common good.

"No doubt greed had a lot to do with it," he said. "But one must also step back and ask how we developed a culture where greed was, and to some extent still is, treated with respect."

Sternberg is the first to admit he's fighting an uphill battle. Cost may be a problem for some schools. With Kaleidoscope, additional evaluators must be hired to rate the extra student essays, videos, drawings and short stories. But it was easy to raise private money at Tufts to pay for the program, Sternberg said, because so many alumnae had had a bad experience with tests.

A bigger obstacle to change is more than a century of entrenched practices (Sternberg calls them "superstitions") in college testing. Even with his 11 honorary degrees, Sternberg said, it's been hard for him to make a dent in what he calls the "deification" of the SAT, ACT and GPA.

"My success has been modest," he said in an interview. "I've never had the skill to diffuse my wonderful ideas through all of society. They'll just have to wake up!"