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Tessera: a little scary but probably fine

| Thursday, January 17, 2019

A couple of weeks ago, students received an email from Notre Dame admissions asking it to participate in a pilot study for ACT’s latest assessment, Tessera.

According to the ACT website, the test is designed to measure students’ “Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) skills and character strengths” to “support student self-knowledge, growth and continuous improvement.” It says the test was created to give parents and teachers a concrete way to make sure students’ soft skills are developing properly.

Tessera appears to be part of a larger push from ACT for families and schools to adopt its “Holistic Framework,” an 11-step program they developed to prepare students for career success.

This is an interesting move for sure. While Tessera may not be the first of its kind — countless tests measuring SEL skills already exist — it is the first to boast the name of a standardized testing monolith like ACT.

Is this evidence that “character scores” for students will soon be a part of the college application process? It’s unclear what ACT has planned, but surely Tessera could make this possible.

Regardless, is ACT right to think a test could know students’ social and emotional strengths better than their parents and teachers?

Its website says Tessera relies a great deal on self-reporting, asking students to evaluate their own character with multiple choice questions. They also employ what they call “situational judgement” and “forced-choice items” (for example, asking students to identify statements they feel are “most” and “least” like them).

While the usefulness of a test that asks students to evaluate themselves is worth being skeptical about, let’s assume it does work. Should colleges care about a student’s Tessera score? After all, though higher education has evolved to be a place of self-discernment and discovery, that wasn’t its original intent. Its original intent was just to educate.

Imagine adding Tessera to the college application process. Students would suddenly feel pressure to get perfect scores in an area they’re not really even going to college to improve. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging kids to be good people, but adding it on top of the rest of the pressures they feel while applying doesn’t seem fair.

Besides, application essays already give students a platform to communicate the same character strengths Tessera is intended to measure. Application essays have an important advantage, though: They give students the freedom to express themselves however they like.

This aside, the implications of such a test are Orwellian, for sure. ACT already holds a lot of sway over high school students’ futures. With Tessera, they’d have the power to define what makes a person good.

To be fair, there’s no evidence ACT is really trying to make high Tessera scores a qualifier for getting into college. Looking back at the Holistic Framework, it appears schools would actually administer the test in early high school.

If it does take off, however, Tessera would an unnecessary addition to the application process, at best; at worst, moral policing. I just hope ACT is careful. High school students have enough to worry about.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Mary Steurer

Mary is a senior sociology major and journalism minor from St. Louis. An aspiring religion reporter, Mary has spent the last year covering conversations about the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis at Notre Dame.

Contact Mary