For Jeneen Graham, Ed.D., Academic Dean of St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, California, it is the science that comes first when thinking about and selecting measurement and assessment systems. “Selecting ACT Tessera for our school had everything to do with my respect for its particular constructs; I was impressed that they were clearly aligned with the abundant research literature about what are indeed distinct and true human personality attributes. I love that the six ACT Tessera skills are based on the ‘big five’ personality traits, many of which are just the right ones for schools to focus on.”
The other thing that impresses her is that the ACT Tessera assessment system, unlike so many others, doesn’t rely exclusively on self-reporting. “Our school’s primary commitment and focus is growth over time, and we look for reliable data about how students are changing over the years in order to evaluate our success and theirs. Self-report systems, though, have too many limitations to work effectively longitudinally. Respondents in self-report system tend toward answering for social desirability: they know what we value and what are looking for, and each time they take a self-report survey they naturally tend to answer with what they know we want to hear.”
Dr. Graham continues, “And there’s another concern: on the flip side to social desirability bias, sometimes as students begin to better understand a construct, they actually rate themselves more harshly, which is a threat to the validity of a longitudinal analysis. But ACT Tessera’s situational judgment test items, and the forced-choice section, largely resolve this problem, because they are resistant to faking and socially desirable responses. If you are committed to student growth, as we are, you have to have more reliable data, and if there’s a choice between a self-report system and something more robust, choose the system that doesn’t rely exclusively on self-reports.”
When Dr. Graham began rolling out ACT Tessera in partnership with St. Margaret’s Middle School Principal Jeannine Clarke, they decided that the teachers should take the assessment first. At St. Margaret’s, like nearly every school, allocating 45 minutes of student time to taking the assessment was a tall order: many teachers might resist giving up the instructional time. So to garner their support, Mrs. Clarke advised that they should have the firsthand experience of taking the test. “Our teachers found ACT Tessera engaging and fascinating. They were surprised to realize that the best answer was often not at all self-evident, and that responding entailed really applying knowledge of the skill at hand, and that this couldn’t be faked. Though some were skeptical at first, after the experience the faculty warmly supported the enterprise.”
They also took care to prepare the student body before administering ACT Tessera, by delivering a presentation at a school assembly in which they explained the value of these skills and how the assessment would work. Each skill was carefully explained with examples connected to the lives of students, so they could see—and feel—why they should care about the outcomes of the ACT Tessera assessment experience. “I made it clear how well ACT Tessera related to our school mission and values: ACT Tessera fits so nicely into a school committed to character development in our young people as a core value of our institution. Students know how much we the educators care about this, but until now they haven’t had the opportunity to know themselves more deeply and to get a better handle on how their own character is developing.”
When the ACT Tessera scores were returned to the school, they were distributed to faculty advisors for sharing in advisory the results and for communication with parents in student-led conferencing. Dr. Graham and Mrs. Clarke are engaging in faculty professional development to advance understanding of how truly teachable these skills are—so the results would be used to help students grow and not to “peg” them into some constraining categorization.
Dr. Graham adds, “This is why I love the playbook. It so greatly underscores that all these skills can be developed by means of concrete steps for growth. So often when you get your standardized testing results the rest is left up to you—no information is provided on what to do next. Here the playbook gives very clear direction to how to support student growth.”
Everyone at St. Margaret’s was pleased with how well the ACT Tessera student-level reports fit into the student-led conferencing, in which students individually, with their faculty advisor, presented to their parents on their schoolwork and progress. “I have a seventh grader myself.” Dr. Graham explained, “I experienced this firsthand as a parent. I was excited to see my son talk in these terms, demonstrating a strong grasp of these skills and their importance, and to hear him discuss himself and his strengths. Our conversation continued over dinner that night, as we discussed how he might grow in each of these areas over time.”
Parents generally saw this as a great value-add to conferencing; some parents reported being very excited about it. “We are a school committed to the mission of expanding hearts and minds, and we are serious about the first part, the hearts. Adding in ACT Tessera results to the conferences really demonstrated that commitment.”
This is just the beginning for St. Margaret’s use of ACT Tessera. Because of the school’s commitment to only emphasizing growth over time in its use of student achievement testing, this first year of data collection only sets a baseline, and can’t reveal much insight in and of itself. But looking forward, Dr. Graham sees many exciting possibilities as this fits into its broader student assessment tools and data, and how the longitudinal data will yield greater insight into what’s working at the school in the area of developing character traits and what can be revised for continuous improvement in the teaching and learning of these critical skills.