Martin Center column offers warning about new test

Mark Bauerlein urges Martin Center readers to beware of a new development in testing.

There is a notable new testing effort afoot. It’s called Imbellus, an assessment project that has raised millions in investment capital and whose founder Rebecca Kantar recently earned a gushing profile in Forbes. …

… She has big ambitions, aiming to replace all college admissions tests—SAT, ACT, and AP—with her own assessments “that get at deeper thinking skills.” If she succeeds, she says, “high schools should be free to teach things that are relevant, practical, and interesting to their students.”

The Imbellus Web site states the thinking-skills premise succinctly: “Unlike traditional standardized tests, Imbellus Assessments measure how people think, not just what they know.” Imbellus drops multiple-choice formats and instead devises simulations that call for “situational judgement.” Assessors, then, evaluate “a user’s cognitive process.” Game design and 3D technology make the test “relevant to 21st century work and modern life.” …

… [S]he explicitly criticizes SAT and ACT for their “hyperfocus” on “content mastery” and their neglect of “the skills and abilities [young people] need.” She mentions a few great minds from the past, Voltaire, Kant, and other Enlightenment figures, but they are merely examples of problem solving that met the challenges of their own day but can’t meet ours. She notes religion, too, but only in passing and lumps it with other “conceptual tools” that helped “optimize” social organization.

In the Imbellus vision, in other words, the content of the humanities is all instrumental. Life is about solving problems, human experience is technocratic, human behavior is pragmatic. Tests need to broach that reality, not old-fashioned artworks and long-gone eras. It’s not that traditional liberal arts curricula fail to appreciate the 21st century condition. They actually hinder young Americans from operating well within it. One page at the Imbellus web site states, “the modern liberal arts curriculum at best instills the bare minimum set of cognitive skills and abilities you’ll need.”

I have listened to the interviews and talks, and pored over the Imbellus web site, and I haven’t found anything that affirms the value of humanistic study. The staff and researchers don’t praise beauty and sublimity; they invoke the workplace and automation. They don’t mention judgment and taste; they spotlight “decision-making.” They don’t show great paintings and architecture; they display simulations of the natural world.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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