Rebecca Kantar was two years into Harvard when she dropped out.
“I just felt like a lot of the same brain development was happening to me throughout my classes,” Kantar explained.
Like most students, her life had been spent learning information then being quizzed on it through multiple choice tests or essays. Even when she went to Harvard, she was stuck cramming knowledge and then bubbling in letters on a sheet for a score.
“I think across the education system right now, we still have a focus on content-based learning. Can you learn more stuff about whatever domain?” Kantar told Business Insider.
“What I was more interested in was could I apply concepts that stem from understanding a domain to real-world situations? And what I found during my time at school was that there were fewer environments to bring something to life in a project-based way.”
With the SAT celebrating its 90th birthday this year, Kantar believes it’s time for a radical update of standardised testing — one that doesn’t just reward rote memorization but one that can assess how your brain works and how you put that knowledge to use.
To do so, she started Imbellus in 2015. Today, she’s announcing that the company has now raised $4 million from investors including Upfront Ventures and Thrive Capital to try to upend one of the foundations of the education system.
“Our hope is to measure how people think instead of what people know,” Kantar said. “There’s a better way instead of using multiple choice and that’s to take advantage of technology.”
What a new SAT could be
Right now, much of what Imbellus is building is under wraps. Kantar started the company last year and is realistic about how long it will take to change a national education standard.
Imbellus’ approach will be closer to showing your work on a maths test than just writing down the solution. The company’s process will track how you solve a problem, not just whether you get the answer right.
“We’ve been using content as a proxy for a lot of skills that we need this century, like analytical thinking, like problem solving, and we’ve been doing that because our assessments haven’t known how to measure anything outside of multiple choice or essays,” she said.
And she’s not doing it alone. Along with her team, Imbellus is partnering with CRESST, the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing. The education innovation arm is helping Imbellus craft some of its psychometric testing frameworks and analysing the data.
“We hope that in the next two years we can show the world that measuring someone’s process is possible and you can understand how people think. It will give us much better insights on how to place people in the right career and the right school over time,” Kantar said.
Jobs first, SAT second
To start, Imbellus is going to tackle the entry level job market rather than going straight to the SAT.
Instead of career aptitude or placement tests, Kantar envisions people taking Imbellus tests to guide their job search, so they will know if their skills are the right match for a particular employer.
It’s a hard challenge: For starters, Imbellus has to build profiles for different companies, down to different roles. Certain companies will attract different skills like imagination and creativity versus analytical thinking, or they will want a mix. It will also need to take into account that companies want a mix of employees who think in different ways.
“We’re not trying to say ‘Here hire the same type A person over and over and over again’,” Kantar said.
Rather, it will start small to replace certain content-based tests for entry-level jobs, helping to instead show recruiters what skills and cognitive abilities the person has rather than how much they have memorized information about the job. The goal is to help employers to find the right fit for the right role.
Once that works, Kantar hopes it will trickle down to becoming the standard for fitting students to schools, too.
“The SAT and most other assessments have made the mistake of comparing everyone to an average that is no one. The problem is that grading model doesn’t take context into account,” Kantar said. “You don’t necessarily need the same set of skills to apply for a job at Goldman Sachs as you need to be successful at the Rhode Island School of Design.”