Here Comes the Lego Test

  • Share
  • Read Later
Can't remember the last time your boss asked you to find the volume of a cylinder? Most of the skills and knowledge we use in our jobs are very different from those that are tested by traditional college-entrance exams, and those of us who score poorly on those tests will probably do just fine in the work world. So Deborah Bial, a doctoral student in education at Harvard University, has developed a three-hour exam that uses group activities, personal interviews and even Lego blocks to identify kids with potential that might be missed by a test like the SAT. "Students who succeed in college can overcome obstacles," says Bial, whose research is funded by a $1.9 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. "A standard paper-and-pencil test doesn't tell you much about these skills."

Bial's exam, the Bial-Dale College Adaptability Index, has been nicknamed the Lego Test for a 10-min. portion that asks small groups of students to reproduce a relatively complicated Lego robot. One at a time, students are allowed to go and look at the structure, which is placed in another room, but they can't take notes. In another tested activity, students lead a group discussion on a topic drawn from an envelope. In both cases, observers are watching to see who takes initiative, who collaborates well and who is persistent.

Nine colleges are participating in a trial of Bial's test, which was first given to 400 students in New York City in October 1999. James Sumner, dean of admissions at 1,400-pupil Grinnell College in Iowa, is hoping a test like Bial's will help identify strong minority candidates the college might miss in its traditional SAT- and-ACT-based selection process. This year Grinnell accepted two minority students who participated in the Bial-Dale test.

The next step of the research is to track whether the participants stay in school and how much they contribute to the campus environment. If the test does predict with any accuracy a student's persistence or adaptability in college, Bial hopes it will eventually become a standard that colleges use along with high school grades and SAT or ACT scores.

Research on another alternative exam, this one written by Robert Sternberg, a psychologist at Yale University, asks students to perform tasks reflecting their creativity and practicality. In one section, students write the caption for a cartoon or design the logo for a company. In another, they are asked how they would handle requesting a letter of recommendation from a teacher or sharing rent payments on an apartment.

The test, which will be piloted with 1,400 students this spring, is being paid for by the College Board, the people behind the SAT. Even they realize, it seems, that some can succeed without knowing how to find the volume of a cylinder.