A Test Worth Teaching To? How a College Dropout Plans to Replace the SAT...


A Test Worth Teaching To? How a College Dropout Plans to Replace the SAT and ACT

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Oct 31, 2018

A Test Worth Teaching To? How a College Dropout Plans to Replace the SAT and ACT

Rebecca Kantar is fighting an uphill battle. She says so herself.

The 26-year-old entrepreneur has set out to replace the standardized tests that are deeply entrenched in K-12 and higher education, like the SAT and ACT, and she tells EdSurge her efforts to do so are sure to spark controversy.

But if Kantar is fighting an uphill battle for Imbellus, the simulation-based assessment company she founded in 2016 and now manages, then a handful of venture capital firms are ready to fight it with her. On Wednesday, Imbellus announced it had raised $14.5 million in a Series A financing round led by Owl Ventures, bringing the company’s funding to-date to $23.5 million. Other investors include Upfront Ventures, Thrive Capital and Rethink Education.

For Kantar, this work came out of necessity. Shortly after she got to Harvard to pursue her undergraduate degree, she felt unchallenged—and disappointed. It was much like her high school experience, she says: “Lots of work, but not lots of development.”

She dropped out and started a business—one that connected young people with Fortune 500 companies. But Kantar knew she eventually wanted to work in education, so she moved on to start planning for Imbellus.

There were a number of questions she wanted to answer back then, questions she’s still asking now: “How do you change a high school curriculum, and why is it so hard to change?” “How can you move past multiple choice tests?”

Kantar wanted to break all the rules of assessment. The vision she had then, and is in pursuit of now, is a radical one. But it has support—and not just from investors.

Developed with learning science, psychometrics and artificial intelligence, Imbellus is a digital, scenario-based assessment set in the context of the natural world. Some scenarios play out underwater, for example, or in a forest. (The assessment excludes humans and man-made markers, such as shopping malls or hospitals, because those have proven to add bias.) Those who take the assessment must decipher complex patterns, solve problems and think analytically. Such skills—and others, like creativity and reasoning—are the ones employers actually care about, Kantar says.

Imbellus Assessment
A screenshot of the Imbellus assessment. Image credit: Imbellus

One of the early adopters of Imbellus was McKinsey & Company, the management consulting firm, which uses the scenario assessments to find job candidates. McKinsey employees, after all, solve problems for a living, Kantar notes. She says other companies of McKinsey’s caliber are already working with Imbellus, though she can’t say which, and that she expects many more at that level will eventually find their way to Imbellus, too.

Kantar says it makes more sense for her team to work on the employer side of things, at least for right now. Employers are the ones defining which skills they value, and they can provide a “treasure trove” of data around whether the Imbellus assessment works and how it works, she says.

So what about the schools? Elite colleges, like Kantar’s would-be alma mater, care whether and where their students get hired. They want them to be hired by elite employers. So if companies start to think their new hires are not prepared for the workforce and haven’t been taught the proper skills, then that college-to-career pipeline will begin to rupture. Employers will stop trusting schools to vet their candidates with metrics like the ACT, SAT and Advanced Placement (AP) exams. It’s already happening, surveys show.

But because those standardized tests today are considered synonymous with student achievement, many teachers feel obligated to “teach to the test.” That concept is not inherently bad, as long as the test in question is a fair and accurate measure of what a person is capable of—but in many cases, Kantar says, it’s not.

“We actually want teachers to try to teach to our test,” she says. “But we don’t want it to take 12 hours or 12 weeks to learn—it should take 12 years.”

Even though colleges may not like what Kantar is trying to do right now—it would drastically disrupt the way they evaluate student achievement—she predicts that “a lot of schools would like the byproduct of our assessment.”

Still, Kantar is not suggesting that schools stop teaching content. “Of course you still need to teach subjects. Kids have to learn something,” she emphasizes. “But what’s the best type of evaluation to get at the core of how that content has developed deep thinking?”

Since starting out in 2016, Imbellus has grown from a team of one to a team of 35. And according to its website, the company is hiring for 18 open positions. Kantar is herself most attuned to the learning science and AI aspects of the assessment technology, but she has a team that is collectively skilled in psychometrics, education, machine learning (including cheating prevention), gaming, computer science and cybersecurity.

She doesn’t think she has a silver bullet with Imbellus—because she doesn’t think a silver bullet exists, period—but she does think what she has is a better measure of human progress and capability than what’s accepted by schools, colleges and employers today.

“There’s no great assessment going to fix it all,” she says. “It’s just a question of getting marginally better.”

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