A college admissions test being developed by psychologists outperforms the SAT alone at predicting who will succeed in college, according to research presented at APA's 2003 Annual Convention. It also reduces gaps in performance between minority and white students, said APA President Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, in a speech accepting the APA Div. 15 (Educational) Thorndike Award.

The test is the product of a consortium of universities, community colleges and high schools called the Rainbow Project and headed by Sternberg. It's designed to tap students' creative and practical skills as well as the traditional memory and analytical skills tested by the SAT. Funded by The College Board, the test may someday supplement the SAT, but is not intended to replace the exam.

The idea, Sternberg explained, is to give college admissions officers a hard measure of creative and practical skills grounded in psychological theory--allowing them to tap a broader range of applicants' skills, better predict who will succeed in college and, therefore, admit students who otherwise might not have made the cut. Admissions officers would no longer have to use hard-to-quantify lists of extracurricular activities as the sole indicator of creative or practical skills.

"Ultimately, our goal is to reduce the amount of talent lost to education institutions and society," said Sternberg, who directs the Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies and Expertise at Yale University.

Successful intelligence

The test is based on a theoretical framework developed by Sternberg called the triarchic theory of successful intelligence. According to the theory, every person possesses a unique mix of analytical, creative and practical abilities. Although schools often only recognize and reward analytical skills, Sternberg said, creative and practical skills can be more useful in real-world settings--helping to spark innovation in the workplace, for example, or allowing Alaskan children to safely navigate the wilderness in conditions unsafe for the average person. Those that are successfully intelligent, said Sternberg, recognize and capitalize on their strengths in the three areas of intelligence and correct or compensate for their weaknesses.

"The traditional tests like the SAT and the ACT provide quite reasonable measures of analytical ability," he explained. "What we're trying to do is to supplement with additional analytical measures, but especially with creative and practical measures."

So, for example, the Rainbow Project test includes multiple-choice items in which students must ascertain the meaning of a word from context--tapping analytical skills.

But the exam also measures practical skills, by, for example, asking students to use maps to plan a route. It also presents students with problem-solving vignettes, such as "You've been assigned to work on a project for a day with a fellow employee whom you really dislike. He is rude, lazy and rarely does a proper job. What would be the best thing for you to do?" Test-takers have a variety of options--such as "Tell the worker you think he is worthless," or "Be polite to the other worker and try to maintain as business-like a manner as possible so that hopefully he will follow your example for the day"--to rate on a seven-point scale as good or bad actions to take.

To measure creative skills, the exam asks students to complete more imaginative tasks, such as solving math problems using novel operations, thinking up cartoon captions, writing a short story based on a given title and dictating a short story based on a picture collage.

Promising data

Sternberg and his colleagues gave a Web-based or paper-and-pencil version of the test to 793 students at 13 community colleges and universities around the country. They found that some of the measures--such as the practical-reasoning vignettes and oral stories--predicted college grade point average (GPA) about as well as the students' SAT scores. In fact, using conservative data analysis, they found that the SAT alone explained about 8.4 percent of GPA variance, whereas the new measures in combination with the SAT explained 16.3 percent of GPA variance.

Moreover, they found that the Rainbow Project test significantly reduced the score gap between white and Asian students and African-American, Hispanic and Native American students--a notable finding, said Sternberg, because it can be difficult to reduce a test's group differences while increasing its prediction.

"We believe that if this broader kind of comprehensive model is used in our society, then we'll open up opportunities for more individuals who are not advantaged by the current system," said Sternberg.

The researchers are now beginning the second phase of their testing research with a larger sample of students. The study will follow participants through four years of college with a broader range of outcome measures.