This looks to be an interesting talk.

For nearly three decades Dr. Robert Sternberg, Provost and Professor of Psychology at Tufts University, has been recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on human intelligence and intelligence testing. He is an outspoken critic of some of the most widely used, traditional measures and definitions of intelligence, and his papers, books, interviews, and lectures on these topics have sparked much controversy and debate. During his lecture, will discuss not only his unique theories and research on intelligence, but also the specific issue of college admission testing and some of the innovations he has been promoting at Tufts.

Good stuff. Comments:

1) Will Williams be inviting someone on the “other side” in this debate to campus? I would recommend Charles Murray, James Flynn or Linda Gottfredson.

2) The more that competitor schools like Tufts use worse standards for selecting students than Williams uses, the better off we are. The more that Amherst lets in (slightly) poorer but less intelligent students, the more smarter but (slightly) richer students are left for Williams.

3) It would be fun to know more about what is going on at Tufts. Consider:

During the last year, Tufts University started a pilot project that represents one of the most significant shifts in undergraduate admissions policies for a competitive research university. The experiment involves additional essays used to identify applicants who are creative, who possess practical skills, or who have wisdom about how to promote the common good — characteristics Tufts says are consistent with its vision of higher education, but which may not be reflected in SAT scores or high school grade point averages.

The Tufts program is known as Kaleidoscope and it is based on the work of Robert Sternberg, a psychologist who specializes in measuring intelligence and promoting creativity, and who is dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts. Sternberg has worked for years to demonstrate that there are many factors — not just grades or test scores — that can predict the success of students in various academic settings. Many admissions reforms these days are based on the idea of “holistic admissions,” in which committees attempt to take a more in depth, and less numbers-driven look at applicants. But Kaleidoscope responds to the concerns of some that such approaches may be too impressionistic and subjective.

“From an outside perspective, it seems capricious,” Coffin said of admissions to competitive institutions, since students with similar grades and test scores have no way of expecting that they will have the same outcome in the process. While Kaleidoscope makes the process consider more factors, he said, it also makes it less subjective, as admissions committees are relying on something real, not just an impression, when they argue that an applicant has creativity, for example. “What we’ve done has another level of information in the process,” he said.

In an interview Tuesday, Coffin described how the process worked in its first year and some minor adjustments for the coming admissions cycle.

What Kaleidoscope does on the application is give the prospective student the chance to write a short additional essay selected among eight prompts. But the topics are not standard, and are designed to demonstrate the presence (or absence) of certain qualities in an applicant. The topics for next year illustrate the idea of moving beyond the “name a person you admire” or “name a book that influenced you” approach to essays. One prompt is simply “What is more interesting: Gorillas or guerrillas?” Another invites students to do as follows: “Use an 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of paper to create something. You can blueprint your future home, create a new product, design a costume or a theatrical set, compose a score or do something entirely different. Let your imagination wander.” Another says: “Thomas Edison believed invention required ‘a good imagination and a pile of junk.’ What inspires your original thinking? How might you apply your ingenuity to serve the common good and make a difference in society?”

The essay prompts are designed so that students may demonstrate one or more of the qualities being sought.

Call me a cynic, but this seems like total dreck. (Note that requiring extra essays as a means of weeding out applicants who aren’t that interested in a school and/or who are unlikely to go if admitted is a different topic altogether.)

But who cares what I think? It is an empirical question whether or not the students admitted using Kaleidoscope are better (or, harder question, make Tufts a better place) than the students admitted using the traditional approach. See here for an explanation of how to test such a claim.

Do you think that Tufts will make the necessary data available to any critics of the approach, either internal or external? I doubt it. See the somewhat related controversy over UCLA admissions. If Sternberg declares, five years from now, that Kaleidoscope is a big success but does not make the data (with names removed) public, will you believe him? I won’t.

UPDATE: Just to be more clear, this is dreck for three reasons. First, anytime you change the admissions rules to favor X, all the applicants from fancy high schools will start having thing X, if at all possible. Now, if you start favoring people over 6′ 3”, it will be tough for applicants to fake that. But if you start to favor essays that show creativity, you will see a lot of essays that look like what you want from places like Choate. College counselors from Choate et al give the colleges what they want. Second, the generally unstated motivation, for at least some colleges, is to increase diversity of various sorts while maintaining an apparently “fair” system. Tufts would like at least Y% of its class to be, say, from “poor” families. But the current admissions system, with so much weight on high school grades and standardized tests, produces much less than Y%. Perhaps a different metric will, objectively and fairly, produce Y%. Third, there is no evidence that admissions officers (or anyone else) can actually evaluate non-academic abilities. See Jen Doleac’s thesis for more discussion.

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