“But Wait! There’s More!” Seeing Beyond the Score

By Vallery Bergez

Any high school student facing a three-pound SAT study book would be the first to say that these tests do not do her justice. Standardized tests do not capture the entirety of a student’s potential success. After the ETS introduced the Personal Potential Index (PPI) in 2009 for graduate schools as a way of measuring skills beyond mere cognition, undergraduate schools have been reconsidering the weight placed on an applicant’s standardized test results. Measuring non-cognitive attributes could provide insight into an applicant’s potential success at a given institution, ultimately improving its retention rates. 

Predictably, the PPI has proven to be attractive to graduate school applicants. Writing for US News, Brian Burnsed notes in “Graduate Schools Quantify Your Potential” that over 13,000 students have created PPI accounts for graduate school applications. It is likely that a version of the PPI for undergraduate schools would be as popular. Thus, the underlying question for admissions teams is how much non-cognitive attributes should factor into an admissions decision, if at all. 

After relying on standardized testing and letters of recommendation, the proposal of a “test” which could demonstrate seemingly immeasurable qualities has generated much discussion. According to Scott Jaschik in “Momentum for Non-Cognitive Reviews” for Inside Higher Ed, the Collegiate PPI would measure six traits similar to those of the ETS PPI: critical thinking and problem solving, motivation and work ethic, ethics and integrity, persistence and resilience, leadership and teamwork, and communication skills.

“The idea behind the PPI is to make letters of recommendation more reliable and to also have them focus on non-cognitive qualities that may be extremely important to the chances of student success, but may not be reflected in grades or test scores,” Jaschik writes. 

Ideally, a Collegiate PPI would present a less limited portrayal of a student. Brian Lohr, the director of M.B.A. Admissions at Notre Dame University, which currently uses the ETS PPI, remarked that letters of recommendation were not as helpful as they were intended to be: “We found that the letter of recommendation only really became a value add when it was negative, and 99.9 percent are going to say the person is the best thing since sliced bread.” Those who write letters of recommendation do so for the benefit of the student, not the institution. By establishing a system which requires more attention to detail, admissions teams hope to get a more accurate understanding of their interest in a particular student.  

Those in favor of the Collegiate PPI have suggested including it as a supplement to the SAT. Although the College Board has expressed interest in this possibility, it has declined to take definitive measures. Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, says that “[t]his pattern suggests that the College Board’s highest priority is preserving the market position of its flagship product – the SAT – not providing admissions offices with detailed, relevant evidence from multiple sources which could improve their decision making.” 

While the Collegiate PPI could be beneficial in many ways, there is also a certain danger. Students could view it as de-emphasizing standardized testing, potentially making them less motivated to perform well. Even if such a student portrayed remarkable non-cognitive skills on the PPI, his lower SAT scores might decrease a college’s interest. However such situations are merely speculative. Admissions teams foresee the possible benefits of these assessments and want to take advantage of them. In Eric Hoover’s blog “Noncognitive Measures Are ‘Not a Magic Wand’” for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Hoover defends his reference to non-cognitive testing as “the next frontier.” 

“Frontiers are places of promise and possibility, but they also abound with uncertainty,” Hoover writes. “That’s a fair way of describing how many admissions deans view the prospect of using alternative measures of student potential.” 

Despite the uncertainty, many institutions are not afraid to stick their feet in the water and give the PPI – and the students – a chance. 

Vallery Bergez is a junior at the University of Dallas majoring in English. The University of Dallas is home to the Eta of Texas chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.