Imbellus: The New Form of Standardized Testing — A Startup Research Report by Sarina Awatramani and Jibran Ali
Imbellus is a new form of standardized testing out to topple the likes of The College Board and the ACT. Arguing that current forms of standardized testing are archaic, and use an obsolete measure of aptitude, Imbellus uses artificial intelligence and software to place humans into lifelike scenarios to assess their decision-making skills and cognitive processes. Imbellus recently cleared its Series A round of investment with multi-million dollar funding and is looking to establish itself in the standardized testing field.
Rebecca Kantar (Founder and CEO)
Education: Harvard University (Cambridge, MA). Attended from 2010–2012, dropped out.
- Chief Executive Officer at BrightCo (2011- 2014) — a think tank company that connected young, entrepreneurial individuals with professionals and investors in their respective fields
- Entrepreneur in Residence at Gerson Lehrman Group (2014–2016)
- Originally from New York
- Attended Harvard University but dropped out at the age of 19 due to eagerness to find her own full-time startup and general discontent with the American education system
- Time spent at GLG might have prompted them to invest in Imbellus
- Forbes 30 under 30 for education in 2019
- Strongly disagrees with the current standardized testing system and is passionate about changing it
- Passionate about education and methods of assessing human aptitude
Jack Buckley (President and Chief Scientist)
- Stony Brook University (Stony Brook, NY) — MA and PhD, Political Science and Government
- Harvard University (Cambridge, MA) — B.A Government
Pertinent Prior Experience:
- Senior Vice President of Research and Evaluation at the American Institute for Research (AIR) (2016–2019)
- Senior Vice President of Research at The College Board (2014–2016)
- Commissioner at the National Center for Education (2011–2013)
- Associate Professor at New York University (2008–2015)
- Served the US Navy from June 1994 — June 1999
- Originally was interested in becoming a politician
- Has great experience in working with standardized testing, data analytics, and the education system
- Has published papers on the future of standardized testing through AIR
Ramsey Jones (Senior AI Research Scientist)
- University of Minnesota — Twin Cities (Minneapolis, MN) — M.S. Physics, minor in Mathematics
- University of Washington (Seattle, WA) — B.S. Physics, Astronomy, minor in Mathematics
- Co-Founder at Noteable (2016–2017) — an application that would annotate documents and images semantically using vocal commands
- Chief Scientist and Co-Founder at Jivry Inc. (2015–2016) — worked as a back-end developer, data scientist, and product manager; composed and maintained the core technology of combinatorial optimization algorithm drawing inspirations from the discrete energy states of multi-dimensional quantum mechanics.
- Has completed multiple projects in machine learning, mathematics, and physics
- Published a paper on Detection of Substructure in the Gravitationally Lensed Quasar
- Knows the education system well through tutoring and working as a TA, is eager to work to revolutionize and change it
- Has a passion for the betterment of the education system
- Has some experience in working with startups, although no real success on his own
The standardized testing market can be broken up into various sectors, consisting of K-12 testing which serves to measure kids against common core standards and college admissions testing, consisting of the ACT and SAT. In the K-12 testing market, the companies holding the biggest market share according to PBS are Hartcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill , Riverside Publishing and NCS Pearson. The K-12 standardized testing market grew from about $7 million in 1959 to its current value of between $400–700 million, according to Boston College. While Imbellus may target these K-12 tests, their main goal right now is tackling the market of college admissions testing, whose main (and only) market players are College Board and ACT. These two companies control the market, with each having about equal market share. Last year for the class of 2018, 2 million students took the SAT and 1.9 million took the ACT, internationally. While ACT now has a comparable number of students taking their exam, it took them a long time to gain this hold on the market. College Board, was founded in 1899 and administered the first SAT in 1926, monopolizing the market until the first ACT was administered in 1959. However, it took the ACT until 2012 to overtake the SAT in the amount of test-takers, and they lost this advantage this past year once again to the SAT. The graph shown displays the amount of students taking the SAT and ACT exams from 1991 to present day:
Along with the companies which occupy the market of the college admissions tests themselves, the test preparation market for these tests is another barrier to entry which stands at the forefront of Imbellus trying to change the current established method of standardized testing. This market, valued at $7.56 billion in 2016 is expected to grow at a CAGR of 6% until 2021, with 33% of this growth coming from college test preparation, according to BusinessWire. Imbellus’s aspiration to change college tests as we know them, would involve dismantling this market, as its founder has been adamant about the fact that Imbellus’s tests would not be something one could simply prepare for with a crash-course.
Go To Market Strategy
Clearly, the market that Imbellus is aiming to enter is well established and has high barriers to entry. In an interview at Google last summer, CEO Rebecca Kantar described Imbellus’s strategy for tackling this market. Their plan is to take a top-down approach starting first with the companies who are hiring candidates from colleges, citing the fact that “60% of employers said that recent graduates were not adequately prepared for the world of work.” As of now, they have partnered with McKinsey, who has been using Imbellus testing in their hiring process. From this, they are gathering data on the qualities which companies look for when hiring and specifically collecting data on how their tests can measure problem-solving skills. Once they have gathered adequate evidence from companies, their next plan of action is to take this to elite colleges to spark a change. Kantar cited the fact that underlies their market strategy: “When Harvard sneezes, the other elite colleges catch a cold, and from there high schools get sick too.” By targeting the elite colleges which serve as signalers to the other members of the education system, they aim to take a top-down approach to change the ecosystem of test-taking that is in place today.
Who are Imbellus’s Competitors?
The College Board and ACT are Imbellus’s main competitors because they have occupied and dominated this market for almost a century.
The College Board
The College Board is the oldest and largest competitor that Imbellus faces. Founded in 1899, the company is responsible not only for the SAT, but the 38 AP tests, 20 SAT subject tests and the PSAT. The cost of taking the SAT is $47.50 or $64.50, depending on if the student chooses to take the essay portion or not. The company is a non-profit, but brings in a yearly revenue of $9.5 million, according to Owler. In addition to its tests, College Board is a large source of scholarships, which helps them to attract more students to take their tests as most of the scholarships require one to take the PSAT or SAT.
The ACT, which was originally the American College Test but dropped the meaning of its acronym, was founded in 1959 by a professor at the University of Iowa to serve as an alternative to the SAT. Since then, it has gained considerable market share but has not expanded to create tests aside from the ACT. The company has stake in the test prep market as well, as it has created its own suite of test prep materials for students to prepare for the ACT. The cost of taking the ACT is $42.50 without the writing section, and $58.50 with the writing section, and test prep materials range from $30-$40. It is a non-profit as well, with $8.3 million in yearly revenue, according to Owler.
Some of the aspects of the two established competitors which Kantar has spoken about changing in Imbellus, aside from the total revamping of the method of testing and moving away from multiple-choice, include increased accessibility and less need for prep. In her interview with Google, Kantar expressed her hope to make the test possible at libraries or schools (and maybe in the far future at home) without the need for specialized testing centers which the current tests use. This would increase accessibility for those who may not live near these centers or do not have the means to get there. She has also emphasized the reliance on learned life skills for the assessment rather than skills that students perfect with the use of test prep work for the current tests. She has not, however, touched on how the pricing will compare.
Pymetrics poses another possible threat to Imbellus. This startup, founded in 2013, most recently closed a $40 million Series B round in October 2018 and has $1.4 million in revenue, according to CrunchBase. Pymetrics uses AI-based neuroscience “games” to test a candidates’ suitability for a job, in order to change the way that people are hired. Rather than relying solely on a resume, Pymetrics wants companies to hire candidates based on their abilities because the current method of hiring results in candidates chosen failing to fulfill their role 30–50% of the time. They are currently employing their software for a number of clients, including Unilever, Linkedin, and Tesla.
While Pymetrics is not directly targeting the college testing industry as Imbellus is, their use of cognitive tests is very similar. In fact, because Pymetrics already has various partners implementing their technology, they have the ability to collect a multitude of data as Imbellus is trying to do by partnering with McKinsey and other companies, and bring it to the elite colleges as well. Therefore, they could choose to target their tests for use in the college admissions process as well. Even if they do not go to the elite colleges before Imbellus, if Imbellus gains traction, Pymetrics could come in as a competitor, as ACT did for the SAT.
Imbellus’s product is their cognitive test, which thus far has only been deployed for McKinsey’s hiring process. Users who take the test face a natural world scenario- being placed in any natural environment from a jungle to being underwater. The reasons for choosing natural world scenarios include the fact that it provides a place for people to apply and transfer their skills, rather than being asked directly to multiply two numbers, for example. Additionally, the natural world provides a vast number of different iterations, which Imbellus can change to prevent cheating.
The goal of their assessment is to move away from the method of rote memorization and basic skills which the current tests measure, based on a model made for those entering the workforce in the 1950s. To do this, users are presented with tasks, and the way that they choose to tackle these tasks is what gives insight into their cognitive skills. The main skill that the assessment measures currently is problem-solving, and aside from simply how test-takers choose to complete their given task, other metrics including every click and mouse-over, hesitation, prioritization and time taken contribute to the assessment of the user’s problem-solving skills.
For example, if placed in the scenario above one would first be presented with text-based tutorials and then taken to their simulation and given their tasks. Imbellus has not released specific examples of their tasks at this time, but has shared that one of the important features of the test is its lack of emphasis on time for completing each task. The Imbellus assessment is geared at removing testing anxiety which current tests may impose from time constraints and therefore features a progress bar, rather than timer. The bar shows the user where they stand in terms of completion of their current task in relation to other tasks, as well as a suggested time, but does move the user forward if they are not completed within the suggested time. The videos on Imbellus’s website describing the assessment suggest that there will be 3 tasks to complete, but no concrete details have been confirmed.
- 47 full-time employees
- Most recent funding was in October of 2018 ($14.5M from Series A round of investments)
- So far only one major firm (McKinsey) is using Imbellus technologies in their Human Resources department
Recently, a study was conducted by the National Center of Education Statistics to observe the overall trend in scores of students taking the SAT. As per their results, there is an overall downward trend in scores since the test’s inception. The plot of their results can be viewed here:
The average decline in test results proves that these standardized testing methods have become obsolete over time. Thus, an entire revamp may be necessary in being able to better measure the potential and aptitude of a human. With this notion in mind, Imbellus technologies can truly change the way we assess human aptitude. In doing so, it has the ability to make standardized testing more pertinent to the modern world.
A study from the U.S Department of Education of the graduation rates and average SAT scores from the top 20 colleges and bottom 20 colleges in the United States also pointed towards a clear correlation. The current education system doesn’t nurture talent and encourage academic excellence, it only ensures the success of members of society that can afford to do well in standardized tests; guaranteeing them a place in top colleges, better jobs, etc. The graph below depicts this phenomenon, with the blue cloud portraying the top 20 school and the orange cloud depicting the bottom 20.
As a growing startup looking to topple an old, established system, Imbellus does have a long way to go. Though they are definitely aware of the long road ahead of them, they will need to continue to push forward in order to make waves and change the system from its current state. One representation of their impact so far is shown in the fact that they were able to welcome a former executive from The College Board onto their team. This addition definitely shows that they are making some headway in changing the minds of those who believe in the current system. However, because the standardized testing industry does not operate in a vacuum and is very tied to other industries and politics especially, they truly need to aim for revolutionizing the way that people think about standardized testing in order to stake their claim.
After doing our research and analysis, we realized that Imbellus’s best approach would be to rely on the trickle-down effect of their objectives. They need to get their technologies on board with more recruiters and HR departments in big firms so that these firms encourage universities and college students to use it too. When this test becomes a norm at the undergraduate level, soon K-12 education systems will start implementing them too to prepare students for college. Just as curriculum has been shaped by our current tests, we could see a shift in the content and method of teaching as the Imbellus assessment makes progress towards their goal. Ultimately, with a lot of rigor, Imbellus can dethrone the likes of The College Board.
Originally published March 2019.
Disclaimer: All information in this report has been aggregated through numerous, public news reports/articles or Imbellus’s website itself. Any misrepresentation of the company is purely accidental. BV is more than willing to correct any mistakes.