Understanding a school’s educational philosophy and missionwhy the Admissions Process matters.

What are we really looking for?

Every school wants to select students who will thrive in their environment. However, few schools examine and improve upon their long-standing admission processes. Over the past decade, research has provided significant data regarding assessment that can actually make a difference in truly understanding and selecting students who are mission-aligned. At Trafalgar School for Girls we have devised an innovative admissions assessment process (now in its third year) based on research and our expert collaborators, which reflects best practices.

What we have seen from results in standardized admission tests over the years is “uniformity”. Whether it be due to bright students or students taking preparatory courses for the entrance exams, the results are all very similar and do not give a school the opportunity to see the uniqueness of a student. The Journal of Educational Psychology ran an article entitled “Are SSATs and GPA Enough? A Theory-Based Approach to Predicting Academic Success in Secondary School.” (Fall 2009) The study explains that when admission officers take into account the results of self-assessment and academic reports, they are able to improve their ability to predict a student’s success by a factor of three, compared to using test scores alone.

For years, the attributes deemed important for student success in school and life, often referred to as “soft skills”, have been a point of discussion and a strong hunch amongst educators. The research conducted gives a quantitative and qualitative measure of these skills and who might take advantage or most benefit from our schools. We know, in working with our feeder elementary schools, that elementary teachers are able to give us a very clear and robust picture of their students’ academic abilities over a period of years, rather than those results we obtain in a single standardized test. Our objective at Trafalgar, as we began our internal discussion, was to create a more accurate profile of the applicant so that admission would be based on true merit.

Other institutions, particularly in New England, have gone through a similar process of re-examining their admissions process and considering self-assessment, which takes different forms at various schools. Robert Sternberg from Cornell University, an expert researcher in the field of assessment, developed a theory of triarchic intelligence—three kinds of intelligence that work together. These intelligences focus on: creativity, to build ideas and solutions; analytical skills, to determine which ideas are good and which are not; and practical skills, that allow for the implementation of ideas and solutions. Fundamentally, his theory supports his belief that schools should be selecting students not only for their academic ability, but also for their potential to be leaders in the future.

Sternberg’s questionnaire has students rating themselves according to their:

  • self-esteem or “academic self-efficacy”(whether they managed their time well and felt confident about that ability); 
  • “locus of control” (how they view their own academic success and failures and whether they attribute these to their own efforts or to external forces);
    and, 
  • intrinsic or extrinsic academic motivation.

Sternberg’s research is currently being discussed and considered at post-secondary levels based on his published book, College Admissions in the 21st Century.

In the end, the entire process is really about the talent of the Admissions Team. At Trafalgar, this team consists of teachers who are part of the planning and process of assessment. If we are truly committed to the “whole child,” then as schools we need to judge students on a wider range of their talents, otherwise, the “likeness” we see in our Standardized Testing results will be the same skills brought to problem-solving and classroom dynamics. If indeed we want a meritocratic and diverse milieu in which unique talents and abilities are fostered and nurtured, we must set this tone through our admissions process.

At Trafalgar, the assessment process consists of a rigorous series of phases that give us a broad and more complete understanding of our applicants. In addition to a thorough review of report cards from Grades 4-6, reference letters and an interview process, students are asked to complete a self-assessment questionnaire developed on Stenberg’s principles of triarchic intelligence. In addition to the self-assessment, the student participates in a series of experiential learning sessions that are observed by expert educators who share their observations as part of the full picture we seek to develop for every applicant. The process no longer tries to weed out students but tries to determine who will have the most success based on our mission and vision.

While we look forward to our own evaluation of this process, we strongly believe that the research supports it. Whether through Duckworth’s research on “grit”, Hallowell’s study on locus of control having strong influence on adult happiness, or Dweck’s exploration of the importance of a growth “mindset” for success, all current research points towards “Trafalgar’s Comprehensive Admission Assessment” process being best practice. We believe that innovation, aside from being based on research and consistency, should serve the students and teachers first so that they are indeed empowered to go out and change the world.

We are delighted by the support we have received through the development of this process and look forward to working with more researchers and our knowledgeable educators to continue to put best practices into real practice!  

Best Assessment Practices—Trafalgar is “What girls’ education CAN be.”