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Altus Assessments is Making Sure Students are more than Just Book Smart

Almost all of the complaints (95% to be exact) made against doctors have little to do with medicine. Instead, they’re related to professionalism… or the lack of it.

According to Rich Emrich, the founding CEO of Altus Assessments, the reason for this is simple: “The problem starts with the way schools select students into medical programs.” He says, “Admissions have primarily focused on selecting students who are strong academically, but they lack a reliable tool to also identify the students with the right personal qualities to become effective doctors.”

Altus Assessments is taking on this problem with CASPer, a situational judgement test for medical school applicants that assesses the personal and professional competencies that are important for success.

“Most of the Situational Judgement Tests are predominantly what we call “closed-response”, so they’re a multiple-choice tests to make the scoring process easier,” says Emrich, but CASPer, in contrast, is an open-response test meant to find out not only “what” students would do in a given scenario, but also “why” they would do what they do – which is even more important in understanding the students’ core intrinsic values and belief system.

“Medical students generally don’t have a problem with academics. Programs are already selecting students with the higher cognitive abilities and strong knowledge base. But they lack the tools to reliably and accurately assess their personal and professional characteristics, which down the road is having an enormous detrimental impact.”

The result is a test that offers something much different than an assessment of an applicant’s intelligence. Instead, it supplies medical schools with information about each applicants’ non-cognitive abilities such as their communication skills, level of empathy as well as their ethics. This information would complement the academic assessments like MCAT and GPA to provide a more holistic evaluation of each applicant.  

In assessments that prioritize academic standings, “really what the current system is optimizing for is somebody who looks like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory,” says Emrich, “but clearly that’s not your best doctor, that’s not your best nurse, that’s not your best teacher, and that’s not even your best engineer anymore.”

Currently, many schools still rely on personal statements and reference letters to provide a more holistic representation of their applicants, but “If you look at reference letters,” says Emrich, “there’s a wealth of research demonstrating that they don’t tell you anything useful about the applicants.”

CASPer is based on the research of Dr. Harold Reiter, who also helped develop the widely-used multiple mini-interview (MMI) process for medical schools, and Dr. Kelly Dore, both of whom were involved in its development at McMaster University, where it has been used to screen medical school applicants since 2010.

“We’ve paid a lot of attention to hiring people who are strong, but humble, who are there to watch out for each other, and I think that’s why we’ve been successful.”

In that time, about 125,000 prospective students have been run through CASPer, illustrating its popularity across the different programs worldwide. Over the years, the incoming data has been used to inform the research and development team to improve the test on an annual basis and support its credibility in medical school and beyond.

“People need to see evidence in order to believe that something works, and the nice thing is that we give them that evidence,” says Emrich, “We show them the data, we do collaborative research with them, and we’re very transparent about our tool.”

Emrich got involved with the CASPer in 2014, when he joined the two academic founders and formed Altus Assessments to help academic programs across the world find better students, both for medical schools and other academic programs.

Since forming the company, Altus Assessments has grown rapidly, and in 2018, it is expected that 80% of US and Canadian medical school applicants will have taken the test. This is in conjunction with other healthcare programs including nursing, pharmacy, and physician assistants. In addition, it will continue to screen a majority of applicants for Teachers Education in Victoria State, Australia.

Published: September 26, 2018
By: Christopher Zou, Ph.D.
Education Researcher at Altus Assessments