(2nd post in a series of there from the USC Attributes that Matter conference)

For several decades, going back to the 1960’s, University of Maryland Professor, now Emeritus, William “Bill” Sedlacek has been sounding the call, an inspirational one, to better appreciate the significance of non cognitive dimensions of learning and success, and has been calling upon all of us who are educators to integrate assessment of these “non-cogs” into university, and now K-12, admissions evaluation and student progress evaluation.

Bill sedlacekRegular readers here know of my passion for transparency and open-source sharing– that as much as is possible, we should make freely available our tools, resources, practices, and learnings, and welcome others to take and use them freely.   Sedlacek, who surely could have decided upon many moments in his career to seek to monetize his research and findings by creating a commercial, profit-making, noncognitive test, has instead taken the path of developing, posting, and sharing many different tools, welcoming schools and universities to take and adapt to his purposes.

As he explained, as a Professor he was successful, financially, enough– and “why would I need more? That others are using my tools, adapting them to their needs, to improve their process, their educational program, and opportunities for others is reward enough.” 

There is accordingly an extraordinary abundance of tools and resources freely available at Sedlacek’s site, here: http://williamsedlacek.info/

From that site, here is just a quick view of the particular instruments he is making available on his site, which could be of value to any and all educators seeking to expand their work in noncog assessment:

Professor Sedlacek’s presentation, which you can review in the slides above, and which is elaborated in writing in the document embedded below, was certainly to my eyes the highlight of the USC conference, Attributes that Matter: Beyond the Usual in College Admission and Success.


Why NonCog?  Obviously, this is the place to start, and Sedlacek laid out many purposes, all of which are very relevant to K-12 educators.

1. Topping out standardized testing and GPA. As he explained:

There is an increasing statistical problem of restriction of range—we’ve “topped out” on a lot of exams—we don’t know how to measure any better at the high ends of achievement.  This is compounded by the problem of grade inflation, which is huge—average GPA has risen half a grade in the last decade, and it creates same problem, topping out on GPA. Now with so many studnets earning 4.0s, we’re taking it out to third decimals, which is really beyond what we can measure.

2. Diversity:   In his paper available below, Sedlecek explains:

The world is much different than it was when the SAT and other tests were developed in the last century. International students, women, people of color, gays, lesbians and bisexuals, and people with disabilities among others, are participating in higher education in more extensive and varied ways (Knapp, Kelly, Whitmore, Wu & Gallego, 2002). Our measures of college readiness have not kept up with these changes, and (Sedlacek, 2004a).

While noncognitive variables are useful for all students, they provide viable alternatives in fairly assessing the abilities of people of color, women, international students, older students, students with disabilities, or others with experiences that are different than those of young, White, heterosexual, able-bodied, Eurocentric males in the United States (traditional students). Standardized tests and prior grades provide only a limited view of one’s potential.

3.  Against the Three Musketeer slogan: One for all and all for one.   The cartoon below would seem to illustrate the logic of the importance of ending the Three musketeers slogan in educational assessment.


Part of the argument here is that the all that shouldn’t be one is not just the students, as the cartoon illustrates, but the institutions.   Most of us believe fervently that education is better served when there is a wide variation among educational institutions and their learning programs, but how different are we really if we are all using the same exact assessments for admissions and educational progress?    Sedlacek implores us to differentiate our learning programs by differentiating our assessments.

Some of the non-cog dimensions which can be valuable to assess include:

  • Self-Concept: confidence, strength of character, determination and independence
  • Realistic Self-appraisal: recognizes and accepts any strengths and deficiencies, works at self-development
  • Handling System/Racism: exhibits a realistic view of system based upon personal experience of racism, committed to improving system, takes an assertive approach to dealing with existing wrongs, able to handle racist system.   (All kinds of discriminatory “isms”)
  • Leadership—demonstrates strong leadership in any area of his/her background.
  • Long range goals– able to respond to deferred gratification, plan ahead, set goals.
  • Strong support person—seeks and takes advantage of a strong support network.
  • Community—involved in the community.
  • Nontraditional learning—acquires knowledge in sustained and or culturally related ways in any field outside of school.

As the conference blog reports, Sedlacek laid out some of the many advantages and opportunities to non-cog.

The advantages of noncognitive variables include: it is a research based approach, there are multiple ways to assess, it is retention related, considers diversity, tested legally, revised to fit situation, no cost, student development, community building, and supported by high school counselors.

In fairness, he also shared that there is some criticism too.    Some studies have found more limited value in predicting academic performance when factoring in the non-cognitive assessments, and that of course is a bit more laborious, time consuming and expensive than to do without.  But not dramatically– Sed encouraged users to consider resources that are free and freely available, and adapt to purposes.

beyond the big test book cover imageHe also said much of his research, and there is a massive collection of studies on his website, does support his argument.   The work he has done for the Gates Foundation for the Gates Millenium Scholars program was especially compelling, he told us.   See slides 10 and 11, and the second embedded (SCRIBD) document below for the substantial evidence of the positive impact of using noncog in selecting these scholars.

Given the opportunities, Sedlacek offered something of a closing cri de coeur:  why would you not try this?   Quoting the conference blog,

Sedlacek understands the difficulty of taking a new approach, but is open to the challenge and criticism. He quoted Elbert Hubert, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing” and suggested that the criticism can be countered and the ideas should be discussed.

He also described several key legal cases that support the use of noncognitive variables and highlighted the recognition of Oregon State as an exemplary program as evidence of support for the approach. After providing resources and references, Dr. Sedlacek left the participants with a challenge, “Why wouldn’t you try this?” and cast an invitation to all to implement these measurements as a step toward societal change.

In my notes, I have his words like this: “ Why wouldn’t you try this?   Maybe it won’t work, but if you want to be innovative at all, and when you are already navigating a rapidly changing pool of candidates—why wouldn’t you want to  experiment?” 

The Q&A which followed, and more than most speakers he allowed lots of time for discussion– he is to be praised for his concise presentation style, something I have much to learn about– was great.

Q. How do you operationalize this? 

A. It is not that hard, he said.   At Gates, they apply their 8 noncog criteria holistically to the whole application: student essay, lists of activities, teacher recommendations, etc.   At Oregon state, they add a short answer set of questions to the form, and trained admissions officers read and review at the rate of 20 an hour.

Q. What about rankings? How does this influence?

A. My response is you say you want to be a leader, then do something different, lead the way, experiment, don’t wait for others and then be a follower.    SAT only designed to correlate with first year college grades—which is awfully limited.

Q.  What about the concern that if there becomes  a widely used standardized norm for this noncog assessment, then the coaching and gaming of the system would become really problematic? 

A.  Yes, there could be that concern, but that is why he is not that eager for any type of generic or universal national standardized tool, instead, let a thousand flowers bloom, let there be a greater institutional differentiation and diversity among all institutions according to the  noncog measures they use—so you could create a typology of schools and universities, a web or diversity rather than a ranking, and then students can sort out to institutions that are a good match for their noncog preferences, styles, needs.

Q.  Are these tools limited to work in admissions and selecting among applicants? 

A.  Not at all, many institutions use them to track student progress, identify necessary student interventions, design necessary student co-curricular and social-emotional learning opportunities, and much more.   One participant, from Phillips Exeter Academy shared that the noncog additions to the admissions process has infiltrated the entire faculty community and has changed the way teachers teach and counsel their students, as an example.

I had the opportunity to enjoy lunch with Professor Sedlacek after his presentation, and among many other topics, we spoke about the what he would suggest if he had to limit himself to recommending just one, only one, Noncog dimension to add to what we normally measure now– and he answered that it was the” ability work in and effectively navigate a system,” similar to  what Sternberg/Choate call tacit knowledge or practical wisdom:  the ability to work with others in an intercultural situation, to make sense of the system—he said that in many ways the term “street smarts” captures this idea—though not necessarily in every sense.

This was an outstanding session, informative, illuminating, inspirational.    I’m greatly appreciative for having had the opportunity to learn from Dr. Sedlacek, and encourage others to consider the use of his recommended approaches.