When parents send their kids to school, they imagine public education will equip their little ones with the skills necessary to support themselves and make the world a better place. Unfortunately, standardized testing distracts students from developing the skills they need to succeed in the workplace and in life. Harvard dropout and education entrepreneur Rebecca Kantar is developing a solution: an education assessment rooted in evaluating how students think not just what they know.
American schools have employed standardized tests for over 150 years. In addition to the SAT, ACT, SAT subject tests, and AP tests which have become the standard for evaluating college readiness, No Child Left Behind and the Common Core Standards established additional standardized tests to evaluate how well students are prepared for college, and subsequently for life.
Yet standardized tests are measuring, and thus encouraging, the wrong aptitudes. While employers call for critical thinking skills, leadership, and character qualities, standardized tests require only right answers. How students achieve those answers means nothing so long as the student fills the right bubble within the time allotted.
Consider the stars of American public education: those who score well enough on the bevvy of standardized tests to attend college.
According to a 2018 McGraw Hill survey of 1,000 of these college graduates, fewer than half feel they’ve gained the skills they need in college to transition from academia to the workforce. Employers report that recent graduates are far from successful even in areas they believe they have mastered. While 66% of students felt they developed critical thinking/problem-solving abilities, only 56% of employers agree. And though 61% of students felt they learned leadership skills, only 33% of employers concur.
In 2018, Bloomberg surveyed 200 senior-level corporate and academic employers about their recent-graduate hires. According to the survey, nearly half of the respondents felt that recent graduates lacked the analytical reasoning, complex-problem solving ability, agility, adaptability, and ethical judgment they needed to perform well in the workplace.
In the words of Los Angeles education entrepreneur and Harvard dropout Rebecca Kantar, “What we test determines what we teach.” To meet employer demands and prepare students to excel beyond academia therefore, educators must start measuring what they need to improve: student thinking.
Kantar is working on an assessment to do just that. Kantar’s company, Imbellus, offers a new approach to education evaluation. Instead of asking students multiple choice questions and assessing right answers, Imbellus offers a virtual testing space, a near video game world, where participants are assessed based on their decisions and interactions.
“Through our virtual world, we assess cognitive skills that matter for this century, skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, imagination and systems-thinking,” Kantar said. “We look at every click, almost click, and action to understand the essence of how people process, develop ideas and make choices.”
Imbellus partners with data scientists and organizations known for their skills in areas such as problem-solving and creativity to translate participants’ decisions within the virtual world to their decision-making skills in real life. These assessments, Kantar argues, reflect the kind of soft skills employers demand and give students, educators, and employers insight into participants’ cognitive development.
“The beauty of the Imbellus technology is that we can track to an atomic level all elements of decision-making,” said Keith McNulty, Global Director of People Analytics at McKinsey & Company. “We can start to map it against known factors in the underlying assessment model. That type of scientific approach is a massive differentiator because it means that we can have the confidence that what we’re measuring is truly relevant to the job.”
And Kantar’s vision is on track for success. By December 2018, Imbellus earned $23 million in venture capital support from Owl Ventures, Upfront Ventures, Thrive Capital, and Rethink Education. Furthermore, McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm, began using Imbellus assessments to find job candidates.
“If I win in the next 10-15 years, which is kind of the timeline I’m on,” Kantar said, “then high schools should be free to teach in ways that are relevant, practical, and interesting for their students, and students should have a better shot at graduating into a decent quality of life.”
Imbellus offers American education the shift in priorities it needs to start offering our kids a shot at a better future. Instead of preparing students to earn a score, Imbellus encourages educators to return to a liberal-arts view of education: a view that prizes inquiry, understanding, and application of ideas for individual improvement and the betterment of the world we inhabit.
Catalyst articles by Kristiana Bolzman