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Reimagining College Access: Frequently Asked Questions

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What is Reimagining College Access?

Reimagining College Access (RCA) is a groundbreaking national effort dedicated to fostering deeper learning and the use of performance assessments in k-12 education and in higher education admissions, placement, and advising decisions.

Currently, RCA is focusing on:

  1. Launching state and regional partnerships to pilot the use of performance assessment information in higher education admissions, placement, and advising. The initial pilot program involves a group of New England colleges and universities that are now accepting student performance assessment information in their admissions applications and via the Common App—an undergraduate college admission service. Participating institutions of higher education may also use performance assessment artifacts in making decisions around course placement and supports needed throughout college. Work is underway to expand the pilot to other regions.
  2. Developing research-based criteria to allow colleges to evaluate the quality and rigor of schools’ performance assessment systems. This will signal to colleges that portfolios or performance tasks they examine have met a standard, just like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses and exams signal.
  3. Developing best practices for high schools to describe in their school profiles their performance assessment systems, instructional practices, and work around equity and student access to high-quality learning.  These profiles are part of the information used by colleges and universities in evaluating students. 

What is a performance assessment?

Performance assessments are demonstrations of student learning, often used alongside more traditional tests. Performance assessments measure how well students apply knowledge, skills, and abilities to authentic problems. A key feature of these assessments is that they require students to produce an artifact—a report, experiment, or performance, presentation, video, or other product.

Performance assessments typically take place over a long period of time and undergo a process of review and revision, thereby continuing the learning process and enabling students to improve their skills and understand course content as they work through the performance assessment process.

Performance assessments are being adopted by schools serving a wide range of students and can be one tool to foster increased equity and inclusion in college admissions as they provide expanded opportunities for students to demonstrate their college readiness.  

Who is involved?

RCA is led by the Learning Policy Institute in partnership with Education First and EducationCounsel. Since launching RCA, more than 100 organizations have participated in working groups or partnered directly in these efforts. They include officials from individual institutions of higher education including Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Florida; state education agency leaders from the Hawaiʻi Board of Education and the Colorado Department of Education; representatives from k-12 systems including Internationals Network for Public Schools, Virginia Beach City Public Schools, Summit Public Schools, Oakland Unified School District, and the New York Performance Assessment Consortium; and education organizations such as the College Board, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE), the Mastery Transcript Consortium, and the Common Application.

Partners in the New England admissions pilot are the Common Application, which is providing a way for students to submit performance assessments through its online application platform, and Castleton University, Clark University, Pine Manor College, Southern New Hampshire University, and Wheaton College. In addition, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is supporting the initiative and accepts performance assessment artifacts with student applications.

All of these organizations share a the goal of fostering deeper learning and equity at all levels of the education system and agree that systems, students, and society can benefit from using more authentic and holistic ways of assessing students’ competencies and mastery of skills needed for college, work, and life in the 21st century.

Is anyone else using performance assessments for admissions?

Yes. Across the country there is momentum among IHEs and secondary schools to incorporate performance assessments into college admissions processes, especially among the more than 1000 colleges that have eliminated requirements for test scores, and many IHEs and online platforms support students in including performance assessment artifacts in their college applications. Several consortia have been formed to try to bring more structure, along with reliability and validity, to these processes. These groups are part of RCA, working to create stronger systems for sharing student work with IHEs.

The RCA initiative is supporting the expansion of this work and, in addition, researching the implementation to identify best practices that can be used in scaling up the use of high-quality performance assessments in both the k-12 and higher education contexts.

How will admissions officers compare students to make admissions decisions using performance assessments?

Performance assessment artifacts are not intended to replace other measures, but can serve to complement traditional metrics like grades and test scores to provide better insights into a student’s college readiness.

Performance assessment artifacts, such as collections of student work, lab reports, or extended research papers, can provide admissions counselors critical insights into an applicant’s abilities, knowledge, and skills that don’t come through as well in test scores or grades alone.

Won’t it take a lot longer for admissions officers to review performance assessments, which would slow down the admissions process, or make it more costly?

Many colleges already use holistic review that involves a number of kinds of student work samples. Admissions officers already review written letters of recommendation and essays, as well as other kinds of work which requires more time to review than grades or test scores, so they are trained and prepared to incorporate more complex and detailed items into their reviews.  In some cases, these additional work samples are used primarily for students who are at the margin for admissions, or for particular programs, or to provide richer information about the multiple measures of preparedness and merit many IHEs value in their admissions process.

Will performance assessments replace other admissions criteria?

Performance assessment artifacts aren’t intended to replace more conventional metrics, such as grades and test scores, but rather enhance admissions officers’ ability to make reliable judgments about how prepared a prospective student is to attend an institution by allowing admission teams to see actual samples of student work. These assessments might also be used to inform decisions around course placement and student supports, post admission. In many cases, rather than reviewing such artifacts for every applicant, some institutions might use them only for specific programs.

Is anyone studying the results of the pilot program?

Yes.  An important part of this project is to learn from real-life practice. The RCA research team, centered at the Learning Policy Institute, will follow the work of pilot participants closely to learn more about the most effective and efficient ways to review and evaluate performance assessment artifacts.

Wouldn’t accepting performance assessment artifacts just further exacerbate inequity? Kids who go to elite schools would be more likely to have experienced these kinds of assessments.

Performance assessments are used in a range of schools, including schools with large proportions of students from historically underserved populations (such as students of color and students from low-income families), not just elite schools in high income neighborhoods or private schools.

Furthermore, one of the explicit goals of the RCA initiative is to encourage more k-12 school systems to use performance assessments that will encourage deeper learning in their instruction by encouraging colleges and universities to demand and use this type of information for decision-making.

How are college admissions officers who accept performance assessment items using them to make decisions? How do they evaluate the performance assessment items?

It is up to each institution how they choose to consider performance assessment artifacts and what specifically they’re looking for in them. Some colleges or universities might use them for evidence of characteristics like persistence or creativity, and others might look specifically at student artifacts to evaluate them as evidence of content mastery. Performance assessments are also used at times after a student is accepted to inform decisions on course placement and additional supports they might need to ensure postsecondary success.

Like any other application material, performance assessment artifacts are considered alongside other information about the candidate.