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2003-2004 Weekly Brown Bag Lunch Discussion
"What Counts? "

October 20, 2003

Nell Anderson (Praxis Program), Jody Cohen (Education Program) and Gloria Lopez (Posse Foundation)
"Moving Beyond the Quantitative Definition of Merit: Learning from and with the Posse"

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Jody began by asking each of us to write about how we evaluate students. Those writings formed (an unspoken) backdrop for the presentations and conversation which followed.

Nell reviewed "what counts" for admissions at elite liberal arts institutions like Bryn Mawr. What is involved in the process of "enrollment management"? Who is recruited, who admitted, who chooses to come? How is a class selected each year? There are a range of factors considered. Bryn Mawr's undergraduate admissions web site says that our students are notable for their "relentless minds" and "determined individualism." How are those qualities expressed in the range of numerical indicators used to select a class, including SATS, grades and class ranking; quality and level of challenge in a student's high school instruction (as well as a number of non-numerical measures such as teachers' evaluations)? Advertising these quantitative measures (such as our SAT median of 1300) may affect who thinks they can get in, who is willing to apply; there are many students who could do well here who never consider the school.

Gloria then reviewed the unique supplement to the Admissions procedures which the Posse Foundation represents. Posse is very comprehensive in the way it approaches students. The program seeks out public school students who wouldn't ordinarily consider elite private colleges, and employs a "dynamic assessement process" to identify student leaders both in schools and community organizations; this highlights qualities that don't come through in the regular application process. The selection process includes a range of group activities in which the students are able to distinguish themselves as leaders, before the Bryn Mawr Admissions team interviews them to assure that they can "get through our screen"--that is, that they will be potentially successful at Bryn Mawr academic work. What distinguishes the Posse evaluation process from the regular Admissions procedures (which it precedes and incorporates) is that it looks not only at the individual, but at the whole student, and particularly at the leadership role she can assume in group dynamics. The focus is not limited to individual assessment, but includes group work, and explores how students function in interactions with large groups of people. This search for team players--rather, for people who can be leaders in group work--is a marked variation in the culture of individualism which Bryn Mawr has traditionally valued. The group of Posse students admitted to Bryn Mawr meets together weekly during the eight months before matriculation; the goal is to create a diverse group of students who can both succeed educationally and act as a team of leaders, extending the current conversations on campus and changing the current culture at the college.

Jody added to these presentations what she had learned at a conference on Bridge Programs held recently at Haverford, at which L. Scott Miller explained the phenomenon of "overprediction." This means that students enter and exit "at the same position" (that is, if they enter college underprepared, their level of achievement won't change; they will leave college still being assessed at the same level). In other words, the likelihood that students entering in the lowest quartile will leave in the same position is very high.

We then began a wide-ranging discussion about how we assess our students, about "what counts" as success here (and after students leave here). Bryn Mawr and other colleges are experimenting with different and more various ways of admitting students, and more varied indices of judging their potential. Are professors altering the ways they assess students? What are our criteria for measuring success? Perhaps the notion of "over-prediction" is overdetermined (in the Marxist sense): as long as Bryn Mawr occupies an elite social position, and as long as we are not willing to interrogate our valuation of "elite," we are implicated in the replication of all the hierarchical structures that multiple assessments, such as those Posse uses, attempt to unsettle.

Mention was made of the pioneering work in "unschooling" by John Holt, who explained the impossibility of the task of removing the bottom quartile (doing so just re-creates a new bottom quartile...) As McDermott and Varenne show in their essay on "Culture AS Disability, in creating value, all cultures create "unvalue." Would it be possible to organize a culture differently--as no culture has ever been organized-- without relying on a single scale of merit? What would it look like to design a college based on "dynamic assessment"? To institutionalize, in our assessments, valuations of what Howard Gardner identified as multiple intelligences? Could the role that our alumnae take nationally, in seeking out potential students, involve more creative activities of the sort that Posse uses? How might the Posse model help us do assessment differently on campus? Does its more holistic selection process invite us to re-think all our traditional expressions of hierarchy and value (the Marshalls, the Mellons, honors; applause for summas at graduation...)?

Our site-specific questions are linked to much larger structural questions. There are many parallels in social policy work to these on-campus issues: implicit "decision rules" in the categories we create, in the criterion we use to create them, in our valuation of "what counts." But every decision rule identifies 50% of the population as being below the median. We need to institute multiple tracks, multiple methods of assessment (following the model of biological evolution, in which elephants become better elephants, horses better horses, bacteria better bacteria...and some dodos extinct). Can we do so without instituting inferior, marginalized tracks?

Jody brought the discussion back to its opening gesture, by reminding us of our initial writings about our own assessments. She invited us to "take ownership" of the kinds of assessments we perform in our classes and offices every day. How might we adapt these assessments to the strengths of the students with whom we work? She closed by saying, "Our conversations are occasional. Our work is daily."

These conversations are, however, persistent... and you are invited to join in them here. They will continue in person next Monday, when Elena Bernal, Director of Institutional Research, will discuss "College Rankings: What Factors Drive Them?"

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