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Performance Assessments in College Admission: Designing an Effective and Equitable Process

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As many colleges and universities are seeking new ways to more equitably admit and support students, a growing number of schools and districts are using performance assessments to prepare for and monitor deeper learning in high school. Because performance assessments surface examples of how students use their academic and nonacademic learning in authentic situations, they can help admission officers at institutions of higher education better understand the students who are applying for admission—their competence, strengths, interests, motivations, and potential.

Colleges have learned that their abilities to effectively use reliable evidence of student learning in the admission process depends on how they frame the “ask” for these materials.

 
Colleges have learned that their abilities to effectively use reliable evidence of student learning in the admission process depends on how they frame the “ask” for these materials.
 

This tool is designed for admission staff at higher education institutions seeking to use performance assessments as part of their admission processes. It was created in collaboration with experienced admission officers and other education experts and delineates four steps that support higher education institutions in requesting the performance assessment information most helpful to their admission processes.

In addition to explanations of the steps, the full report includes activities to support each step and put it into action.

Step 1: Know Your “Why”

Because performance assessments can reveal different aspects of students’ knowledge, skills, and abilities, it is important for admission officers to carefully consider why they want different and/or additional information. Reasons might include expanding opportunities for underserved students; identifying students with particular competencies to ensure fit or preparedness; or more deeply understanding students’ motivations, passions, and potential. Based on the identified purpose, admission officers can then consider what specific features would be most helpful to explicitly target through materials students share. By the end of this step, admission officers should be able to answer this framing question: What do I want to know about students that current application materials do not convey, and why do I need this information?

Step 2: Determine Which Artifacts to Request

Next, admission officers will need to determine which artifacts students should submit to meet the goal. For performance assessments to be used in ways that advance equity, it is important that admission staff consider how to request and use authentic work that can be completed as part of school-based projects, assignments, and assessments (e.g., research papers or projects completed as part of coursework).

Artifacts that require extra resources, time, out-of-school opportunities, or considerable support may inadvertently disadvantage some learners, privileging those with access to certain kinds of resources.

Admission officers should choose artifacts that will convey the most information in the most usable format for their processes. While this will certainly shift based on purpose, admission officers might generally find student work, student reflections on that work, and some kind of external evaluation to be key artifacts to ask for. These artifacts provide context for what students are submitting and why it is important to them. At the end of this step, admission officers should be able to answer this framing question: What artifacts are we looking for, and what features should those artifacts highlight?

Step 3: Craft and Refine the Ask

When it is clear what information should be surfaced and what artifacts will help support an equitable admission process, it is time for admission officers to determine what exactly to ask students to submit. Application requests for performance assessments should be clear about expectations and intended use, present little additional burden to students, and be piloted to ensure they support the intended outcomes. By the end of this step, admission officers should be able to answer this framing question: What language should we use to request performance assessment artifacts as part of student applications?

Step 4: Conduct Outreach and Communicate the Request

Once admission officers know what they want students to submit, they must communicate that to guidance and college counselors, students, and families. For performance assessments to be used in service of more holistic and equitable admission processes, it is important that all students and the adults supporting them know about this opportunity. At the end of this step, admission officers should be able to answer this framing question: What is our strategy for communicating this opportunity so that we are surfacing this information from the students this is designed to serve?

Recommendations

  • Start small and be specific. When first considering using performance assessments as part of an application process, admission officers should start with a specific use in mind, for example supplementing applications for a particular group of students (e.g., those with lower SAT/ ACT scores, those applying for a specific program).
  • Leverage current “look-fors.” Are there some specific demonstrations that faculty say are indicators of student success within their classes? Consider whether a performance assessment might surface those competencies in a wider range of students, providing admission teams with a larger pool of students who are likely to be successful at the institution through a more equitable process.
  • Be as clear as possible. Because artifacts come in many different forms, being explicit about what a submission should include will help ensure you receive the kind of information you will find most useful. Also, be clear with students and schools about how performance assessment information will be interpreted.
  • Request reflections. One of the benefits of performance assessment is that there is an implied aspect of evaluation; some expert or group of experts (possibly including students themselves) has evaluated student performance on this task or experience before. Requesting student and external reflections as part of applications that include performance assessments can make evaluating applications much less time intensive while revealing more information about students.
  • Choose a platform that is easy to use for both students and application readers. Using a well-designed and intentional platform can streamline this part of the application process for all parties.
  • Consider starting with schools that use performance assessments as an integral part of their systems. Performance assessments that are developed and used as part of a teaching and learning system will likely have rigorous development and implementation processes associated with them and might lead to artifacts (task, student work, rubrics) that are easier to navigate. Partnering with school systems that are already doing this work might help inform the performance assessments process.

Performance Assessments in College Admission by Aneesha Badrinarayan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

The development of this tool was supported by the Stuart Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.