The Case for Noncognitive Measures


William E. Sedlacek

University of Maryland


(2005)  In W. Camara and E. Kimmel (Eds.).

Choosing students:  Higher education admission tools for the 21st century.

(pp. 177-193) Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.




We appear to have forgotten why tests were created in the first place. While they were always considered to be useful in evaluating candidates, they were also considered to be more equitable than using prior grades because of the variation in quality among preparatory schools. The College Board has long felt that the SAT was limited in what it measured and should not be relied upon as the only tool to judge applicants (Angoff, 1971).  The College Board gave advice in 1926 as it developed the first SAT that is as relevant today as it was then.

The present state of all efforts of men (sic) to measure or in any way estimate the worth of other men, or to evaluate the results of their nurture, or to reckon their potential possibilities does not warrant any certainty of prediction. This additional test now made available through the instrumentality of the College Entrance Examination Board may resolve a few perplexing problems, but it should be regarded merely as a supplementary record.  To place too great emphasis on test scores is as dangerous as the failure properly to evaluate any score or rank in conjunction with other measures and estimates which it supplements. (Brigham,1926, pp 44-45).

In 1993, the verbal and mathematical reasoning sections of the SAT were lengthened and the multiple-choice Test of Standard Written English was dropped. The name was changed from Scholastic Aptitude Test to Scholastic Assessment Tests, while retaining the SAT initials. Currently it is just called the SAT-I.  In 2003, the College Board announced that an essay would be added and the analogies item type removed as of 2005.  Despite various changes and versions over the years, the SAT in essence measures what it did in 1926, verbal and math ability; it is basically still a general intelligence test (Sedlacek, 2003, 2004).

However, we have come to the point where the “Big Test” has become the focal point in our schools (Lemann, 2000). It has become the standard by which we judge ourselves and others. Many assume that if an individual has high SAT scores, or if a school has high mean SAT scores, the students must be learning something, and the school must be good. To cite that common metaphor; the tail is wagging the dog.

Test results should be useful to educators, student service workers, and administrators, by providing the basis to help students learn better and to analyze their needs. As currently designed, tests do not accomplish these objectives. Many teachers tend to teach to get the highest test scores for their students, student service workers may ignore the tests, and too many administrators are satisfied if the average test scores rise in their school. We need some things from our tests that currently we are not getting. We need tests that are fair to all and provide a good assessment of the developmental and learning needs of students, while being useful in selecting outstanding applicants. Our current tests don’t do that.

Keeping Up With Change

The world is much different than it was when the SAT and other tests were developed in the last century. Women, people of color, gays, lesbians and bisexuals, among others, are participating in higher education in more extensive and varied ways (Harvey, 2002; Knapp, Kelly, Whitmore, Wu & Gallego, 2002; McTighe Musil, et al., 1999; Mohr & Sedlacek, 2000). Commonly employed tests have not kept up with these changes (Sedlacek, 2004).

Additional questions about tests range from their legality (Harvey & Hurtado, 1994), the validity of their scores (Williams, 1997), methodology in developing tests (Sedlacek,1986, 1994, 2003, 2004), and restriction of range problems (Darlington, 1998). 

A Fresh Approach

We need a fresh approach. It is not good enough to feel constrained by the limitations of our current ways of conceiving of tests. Instead of asking; “How can we make the SAT and other such tests better?” we need to ask; “What kinds of measures will meet our needs now and in the future?” The purpose of this chapter is to present the underlying logic and research supporting a method that yields such measures. We do not need to ignore our current tests, we need to add some new measures that expand the potential we can derive from assessment.

The Three Musketeers Problem

<SPAN style="FONT-FAMILY: Courier; FONT-SIZE: 12pt; mso-bidi-font-size: 10.0pt">The rallying cry of "all for one and one for all" is one that is used often in developing what is thought of as fair and equitable measures (Sedlacek,1994). Commonly, the interpretation of how to handle diversity is to hone and fine-tune tests so they are equally valid for everyone. However, if different groups have different experiences and different ways of presenting their attributes and abilities, it is unlikely that one could develop a single measure, test item etc. that could yield equally valid scores for all. If we concentrate on results rather than intentions, we could conclude that it is important to do an equally good job of selection for each group, not that we need to use the same measures for all to accomplish that goal. Equality of results, not process is most important.

Therefore, we should seek to retain the variance due to culture, race, gender, and other aspects of nontraditionality that may exist across diverse groups in our measures, rather than attempt to eliminate it (Sedlacek, 2003, 2004).  Sedlacek (2004) has defined nontraditional persons as those with cultural experiences different from those of White middle-class males of European descent; those with less power to control their lives; and those who experience discrimination in the United States.

Noncognitive Variables

While the term “noncognitive” appears to be precise and “scientific” sounding, it has been used to describe a wide variety of attributes. Willingham (1985) studied high school honors, high school follow-through, personal statements, and references, and concluded that they added to prediction of college success. Other researchers have included student involvement (Astin, 1993), academic and social integration (Milem & Berger, 1997), study skills (Nisbet, Ruble, & Schurr, 1982), and socio-economic background, institutional, and environmental variables (Ting & Robinson, 1998) in their conceptions of noncognitive variables related to student success. Throughout this chapter “success” refers to grades, retention or graduation, unless otherwise noted.

Noncognitive is used here to refer to variables relating to adjustment, motivation, and student perceptions, rather than the traditional verbal and quantitative (often called cognitive) areas typically measured by standardized tests. Noncognitive variables appear to be in Sternberg’s (1996) experiential and contextual domains, while standardized tests tend to reflect the componential domain.  While noncognitive variables are useful for all students, they are particularly critical for nontraditional students, since standardized tests and prior grades may provide only a limited view of their potential. Below is a discussion of the eight variables recommended to be included in admissions assessment systems (see Exhibit 1).


Insert Exhibit 1




Positive Self-Concept

There is evidence that the way students feel about themselves is related to their adjustment and success in college (Sedlacek, 2003, 2004).  A strong self-concept is particularly important for students of color (Neville, Heppner, & Wang, 1997), students with disabilities (Patterson, Sedlacek, & Scales, 1988), and women returning to school (Adelstein, Sedlacek, & Martinez, 1983).

A number of studies have shown that a positive self-concept correlates with college grades, retention, and graduation, particularly the later two, for regularly admitted African American students (McNairy, 1996; Milem & Berger, 1997; Tracey & Sedlacek, 1984a, 1984b, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989).  O’Callaghan and Bryant (1990) found self-concept important for the success of Black American students at the U. S. Air Force Academy.

Fuertes, Sedlacek, and Liu (1994) demonstrated the importance of a strong self-concept for Asian and Pacific Islander university students.  Bennett and Okinaka (1990) found that Asian Americans often had feelings of social isolation and dissatisfaction on campus. Chung and Sedlacek (1999) also noted that Asian Americans had lower career and social self-appraisals than students of other races.

Fuertes and Sedlacek (1995) noted the importance of a Latino self-concept and Longerbeam Sedlacek, and Alatorre (2004) found that Latinos were more likely to feel they lacked academic ability than other racial groups. Also, Latinos have been found to be more likely than other groups to be uncomfortable on a campus stressing diversity issues (Ancis, Sedlacek, & Mohr, 2000; Helm, Sedlacek, & Prieto,1998).

Boyer and Sedlacek (1988) found self-concept to be predictive of grades and retention for international students, while Sedlacek and Adams-Gaston (1992) found self-concept related to grades for student-athletes. Betz and Fitzgerald (1987) as well as Ancis and Sedlacek (1997) provided evidence that women’s self-concept related to their academic success.  White and Sedlacek (1986) found self-concept to be predictive of success for students in special programs.

In summary, a positive self-concept is predictive of success in higher education for all students. While having a good self-concept is important for any student, it becomes even more important for those with nontraditional experiences because of the added complexity of dealing with a system that was not designed for them.

Realistic Self-Appraisal

Realistic self-appraisal is the ability to assess one’s strengths and weaknesses and allows for self-development.  Realism in self-appraisal by nontraditional persons does not connote cultural, racial, or gender deficiency or inferiority.

White students may do well pursuing their own interests (internal control) in a society designed to meet their needs, while students of color need to also be aware of the external control on their lives which requires them to negotiate the racism in the system (Sedlacek, 1995, 1996, 2003, 2004; Sedlacek & Brooks, 1976). Perrone, Sedlacek, and Alexander (2001) found that White and Asian American students perceived intrinsic interest in a field as the major barrier to achieving their career goals, while African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans cited personal finances as their major barrier.

Tracey and Sedlacek (1984a, 1984b, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989) found realistic self-appraisal to correlate with college grades, retention and graduation for students of all races, but the relationships were particularly strong for African Americans. Women who are able to make realistic self-appraisals have been shown to get higher grades in a university than those who have difficulty with such assessments (Ancis & Sedlacek, 1997).

In summary, students of color and women of all races who are able to make realistic assessments of their abilities, despite any obstacles to making those assessments, do better in school than those less able to make those judgments. Realistic self-appraisal is also a predictor of success for traditional students.

Understands and Deals with Racism

The successful nontraditional student is a realist based on a personal experience with discrimination; is committed to fighting to improve the existing system and is able to handle a racist system. Institutional racism is defined as the negative consequences that accrue to a member of a given group because of the way a system or subsystem operates in the society (e.g., college admissions) regardless of any other attributes of the individual (Sedlacek, 1995, 2003, 2004; Sedlacek and Brooks, 1976). Racism can take many forms and is used here to cover all types of ‘isms” (e.g., sexism, ageism, athletism). While racism can be “individual” rather than institutional, the primary concern here is for dealing with the policies procedures and barriers, intentional or not, that interfere with the development of people.

For traditional students, the variable takes the form of handling the system without the addition of racism (Sedlacek,1996, 2003, 2004; Tracey & Sedlacek, 1984a, 1984b). How one learns to handle the circumstances with which they are confronted tells us much about their ability and potential.

Steele’s (1997) work on “stereotype threat” supports the importance of the psychological set with which examinees approach a test. If African Americans are told that they do not usually do well on a test, they do less well than if a more positive set is given. It is documented in the professional and popular literature that African Americans don’t do as well as Whites on standardized tests (Sedlacek, 1998a, 1998b, 2003, 2004; Lemann, 2000). Therefore, for African Americans, the act of taking a test probably involves dealing with the racism that may have been involved in helping to create a stereotype threat in the first place. Hence, part of the variance that is being measured when an African American takes the SAT is likely to relate to how that person handles racism. If nontraditional individuals, as defined here, can approach an evaluation with a feeling of empowerment, or expected success, they may be employing a noncognitive skill that would give a more accurate prediction of their potential. This skill should be measured directly rather than inferred from other measures.

Prefers Long-Range Goals

Having long-range goals will predict success in college for students.  Since role models often are more difficult to find, and the reinforcement system has been relatively random for them, many nontraditional students have difficulty understanding the relationship between current efforts and the ultimate practice of their professions (Sedlacek, 2003, 2004).

In other words, since students of color tend to face a greater culture shock than White students in adjusting to a White student-oriented campus culture, students of color may not be as predictable in their academic performance in their first year as are traditional students (Farver, Sedlacek & Brooks, 1975).  However, by the time of their second year, students of color are about as predictable as others.

Boyer and Sedlacek (1988) found a significant relationship between setting long-range goals and grades and retention for international students. Moore (1995) concluded that having long- range goals correlated with persistence in school for international community college students. Hence, students who show evidence of having long-range goals do better in college than those without such goals.

Availability of a Strong Support Person

Students who have done well in school tend to have a person of strong influence who provides advice to them, particularly in times of crisis (e.g., Sedlacek, 2003, 2004).  This individual may be in the education system, but for nontraditional students it is often a relative or a community worker.

Having a strong support person has been shown to be a significant correlate of grades, retention and/or graduation for African Americans (Tracey & Sedlacek, 1984a, 1984b, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989), women (Ancis & Sedlacek, 1997), athletes of all races (Sedlacek & Adams-Gaston, 1992), international students (Boyer & Sedlacek, 1988), and students in special support programs including Asian Americans, African Americans, and Whites (Ting, 1997; White & Sedlacek, 1986).

Because of inconsistent reinforcement of the relationship between individual effort and positive outcome, it may take relatively little to make a student of color drop out or fail school (Mallinckrodt, 1988).  If a White student drops out, there may be many forces in the society to bring him or her back into the educational system.  But the student of color may leave school and never be heard from again

Successful Leadership Experience

Students who are most successful in higher education have shown an ability to organize and influence others.  The key here is that nontraditional students may show evidence of leadership in different ways than their White counterparts, such as working in their communities, through their places of worship, or even as street gang leaders.  Application forms and interviews typically are slanted in directions likely to yield less useful information about the backgrounds of nontraditional students.

It is important to pursue the culture and gender-relevant activities of the applicants rather than to treat them as if they come from a homogenous environment. For example, Liu and Sedlacek (1999) found that Asian American students had unique and culturally related ways of expressing their leadership.   If an applicant succeeds in his or her culture and is now ready to “take on” college, there is evidence that the student has the potential to succeed.

Assertiveness is likely to be an important component in leadership as a predictor of success (Sedlacek, 2003, 2004).  A passive operational style for students of color will deny them many opportunities in a system that is not optimally designed for them.  Seeking out resources, human and environmental, is correlated with success for students of color.

Tracey and Sedlacek (1984a, 1984b, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989) and White and Shelley (1996) showed evidence of the value of leadership in the retention of Latinos and Native Americans. They also found leadership to be predictive of success in school for African American undergraduate students. Webb, Sedlacek, Cohen, Shields, Gracely, Hawkins, and Nieman (1997) found a similar relationship for female African American medical students.  White and Shelley (1996) also found evidence of the value of leadership in the retention of Latinos and Native Americans. Ancis and Sedlacek (1997) and Betz and Fitzgerald (1987) identified leadership as a correlate of success for women in college, and Boyer and Sedlacek (1988) found a similar relationship for female and male international students.  Ting (1997) and White and Sedlacek (1986) found that leadership correlated with academic success for students in special support programs.

In summary, students of color and women who show evidence of leadership, often in race or gender-related forms, prior to matriculation in college are more likely to be successful in college than those who do not have leadership experiences. Leadership ability is important for any student, but it may take different forms for students with less traditional experiences.


Having a community with which students can identify, and from which they can receive support, is critical to their academic success.  For White students, there tend to be a number of opportunities to find a community, in or out of school. The community for nontraditional students often is based on racial, cultural or gender-related variables. Students of color, women, and other persons with nontraditional experiences who are active in a community learn how to handle the system, exhibit leadership, and develop their self-concepts in such groups.  For example, Mallinckrodt and Sedlacek (1987) found that African American students who used campus athletic facilities and certain student union programs were more likely to stay in school than those who did not.

Fuertes, Sedlacek and Liu (1994) found identification with a community important for Asian American success in school, as did Sedlacek and Adams-Gaston (1992) for male and female athletes of all races.  White and Shelley (1996) indicated the importance of community in retaining Latino and Native American students. Bennett (2002) concluded that having a race-based community correlated with college graduation for “underrepresented minorities” in a teacher training program. Ancis and Sedlacek (1997) found community to be a correlate of success for undergraduate women as did Ting (1997) for White students in special programs.  Boyer and Sedlacek (1988) and Moore (1995) also found community involvement to be important for the academic success of international students. Therefore, those who have been involved in a community, often based on race and/or gender, are more successful in college than those not so involved.

Nontraditional Knowledge Acquired

The ability of someone to learn from experiences outside the classroom correlates with their success in school. Persons of color are more apt to learn and develop using methods that are less traditional and are outside the education system.  The methods may be culture or gender-related and the field itself may be nontraditional. A range of studies, (Tracey & Sedlacek (1984a, 1984b, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989) for African Americans; Fuertes and Sedlacek (1995) for Latinos; Boyer and Sedlacek (1988) for international students; Ting (1997) for special program students; and Ancis and Sedlacek (1997) for women, have shown the predictive value of nontraditional learning for the academic success of those groups.

Measuring Noncognitive Variables

The noncognitive variables shown in Exhibit 1 can be assessed in a number of ways including questionnaires, short-answer questions, essays, interviews, portfolios, and application reviews (Sedlacek, 2004).

The Noncognitive Questionnaire (NCQ)

The Noncognitive Questionnaire (NCQ) was designed to assess the eight noncognitive variables discussed above and shown in Exhibit 1. Tracey and Sedlacek (1984a, 1984b), Woods and Sedlacek (1988) and Ting and Sedlacek, (2000) provided construct validity evidence for scores on the eight dimensions measured by the NCQ for African American and White samples. Woods and Sedlacek (1988) also showed evidence that the NCQ correlates with a measure of stress. Warmsley (1998) found that first-year grades for African American students at the City University of New York were significantly better predicted by the NCQ than by the SAT. Faubert (1992) showed that the NCQ was related to the success of ninth and tenth grade African American rural students.

Several forms of the NCQ have been developed and employed in different selection contexts (Sedlacek, 2004). The questionnaire can be administered on-line. Tracey and Sedlacek (1984a) reported 2-week test-retest reliability estimates on NCQ scores ranging from .74 to .94, with a median of .85 for the NCQ items with different samples. Inter-rater reliability on scores from the three open-ended NCQ items ranged from .73 to 1.00.  

Alternate forms of the NCQ have shown test-retest reliability estimates in the .80s and relationships of alternate form scores (median r = .79) with scores from the basic NCQ (Sedlacek, 2004). Tracey and Sedlacek (1989) provided some reliability and validity evidence, with different samples, for scores on a revised version of the NCQ containing more items but no open-ended items, with a somewhat revised factor structure. Lockett (1980) reported validity and reliability data for scores from a modified version of the NCQ for Black students at a large Midwestern university. Ting and Sedlacek (2000) provided information on the validity and reliability of scores from a revised NCQ in predicting retention for White students at a large Southeastern university.

Another version of the NCQ was shown to correlate with college grades of traditional and nontraditional students in health programs at a western state community college (Noonan, Sedlacek, & Suthakaran, 2001). Also, Webb et al. (1997) found that a version of the NCQ predicted success for students of color at two medical schools on examinations offered by the National Board of Medical Examiners.

Legal Issues

The use of noncognitive variables in admissions has been supported in court. The University of Maryland Medical School employed interviews to assess applicants on the noncognitive variables shown in Exhibit 1. It defended their use in a lawsuit that challenged their fairness (Farmer v. Ramsay et al.,1998). The court ruled in favor of allowing the University to employ noncognitive variables in admitting students and the appeal was denied. In Castañeda et al. v. The University of California Regents (1999), a number of civil rights groups filed a suit against the University of California, Berkeley. The plaintiffs charged that their admissions procedures were unfair to applicants of color, and petitioned for inclusion of the noncognitive variables shown in Exhibit 1. In settling the case, every applicant to the university now is evaluated on the basis of his or her entire applicant file, including personal statements and extracurricular activities as well as grades and test scores.

            While I supported the efforts of the University of Michigan to consider race directly in its admissions policies in the two recent Supreme Court cases (Gratz and Hamacher v. Bollinger et al., 2002; Grutter v. Bollinger et al., 2002), I believe there is a better way to proceed. If the university were to use the noncognitive variables proposed here in its admissions systems, it would achieve diversity in its classes by virtue of considering variables that reflect race, culture, gender, and other aspects of experience. Thus, by not directly selecting for certain groups, a school can achieve increased diversity in a more sophisticated way, on the basis of the research evidence available.

Conclusions and Recommendations

There appears to be enough evidence to give noncognitive variables a try in higher education admissions. Measures have been shown to yield reliable and valid scores, and they are available at no cost (Sedlacek, 2004). It is recommended that noncognitive measures be added to current measures, such as the SAT, ACT, or GPA, in an admissions program rather than to replace existing measures. The Three Musketeers Problem noted above could then be avoided.

Some have felt that simply eliminating the use of cognitive measures would result in improved admission procedures. Unless there is a focus on different sources of variance, one could be attempting to measure cognitive abilities in a way that is less efficient than that achieved with current tests. While noncognitive variables are beginning to be employed in admissions, problems of restriction of range may not be present to the same extent as using cognitive measures. For example, scores on over 16,000 applicants to the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which employs the noncognitive variables shown in Exhibit 1 in selecting scholarship recipients, showed a nearly perfectly normal distribution (Sedlacek, 2004). Also, since a variety of measurement methods can be employed to obtain noncognitive scores, there may be less likelihood of sample bias than with cognitive measures.

Noncognitive variables appear to be positively related to retention and graduation criteria. The nature of thenoncognitive variables is such that they can be employed in post-matriculation situations. They can be used in counseling, advising, teaching, and student service programs in ways that traditional test scores probably are not useful (Sedlacek, 2003, 2004). We might seek to develop students on the noncognitive dimensions after they start college, but we would not likely try to improve their SAT scores.


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Exhibit 1

Description of Noncognitive Variables


Variable #

Variable Name


Positive Self-Concept

·        Demonstrates confidence, strength of character, determination, and independence.


Realistic Self-Appraisal

·        Recognizes and accepts any strengths and deficiencies, especially academic, and works hard at self-development.  Recognizes need to broaden his/her individuality.


Understands and Knows How to Handle Racism (the System)

·        Exhibits a realistic view of the system based upon personal experience of racism.  Committed to improving the existing system.  Takes an assertive approach to dealing with existing wrongs, but is not hostile to society, nor is a "cop-out."  Able to handle racist system.


Prefers Long-Range to Short-Term or Immediate Needs

·        Able to respond to deferred gratification, plans ahead and sets goals.


Availability of Strong Support Person

·        Seeks and takes advantage of a strong support network or has someone to turn to in a crisis or for encouragement.


Successful Leadership Experience

·        Demonstrates strong leadership in any area of his/her background (e.g. church, sports, non-educational groups, gang leader, etc.).


Demonstrated Community Service

·        Participates and is involved in his/her community.


Knowledge Acquired in or about a Field

·        Acquires knowledge in a sustained and/or culturally related ways in any field.