Measurements of so-called noncognitive student traits like self-control, “grit,” and gratitude should not be used for school accountability or teacher-evaluation purposes, two pioneers in the field warned last week.
That’s not because those traits – which often fall under categories like social-emotional learning, character development, and 21st-century skills – aren’t important, said Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania associate professor of psychology known for her research on grit, and David Yeager, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Texas at Austin who focuses on growth mindsets.
However, since there are potential flaws in every existing method schools use to measure such traits and skills, they should not be used for high-stakes purposes, Ms. Duckworth and Mr. Yeager write in an essay published May 13 in Educational Researcher.
When tracking interventions designed to boost desirable nonacademic traits and skills in students, “perfectly unbiased, unfakeable, and error-free measures are an ideal, not a reality,” the essay concludes. “Instead, researchers and practitioners have at their disposal an array of measures that have distinct advantages and limitations.”
The researchers’ warning comes at a time when policymakers and educators have embraced a growing body of research that demonstrates how promoting noncognitive qualities can boost student success both inside and outside the classroom.
With the drive to integrate a greater focus on traits like persistence, self-awareness, resilience, and empathy in schools has come a desire to measure those traits and to use those measurements for individual evaluation and school accountability. That’s where things get problematic, the researchers say.
Some schools have started including indicators like grit and gratitude on student report cards; policymakers have discussed including growth in students’ noncognitive skills in teacher evaluations; and some advocates have suggested using such measures for college admissions.
In California, a group of school districts has committed to incorporating social-emotional-learning measures into their school accountability systems as a condition of their waiver from the annual-progress requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.
But as educators and policymakers seek practical applications for education improvement ideas developed by researchers in psychology, they should be thoughtful and cautious about how they proceed, Ms. Duckworth said in an interview.
“It’s like that Tolstoy quote: ‘Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,’ ” she said. “Every measure has its own way of being imperfect.”
The essay uses the example of measuring self-control to explore the advantages and weaknesses of three possible forms of measurement—self-reported questionnaires, teacher-reported questionnaires, and performance tasks.
In recent years, districts around the country have begun tracking student and teacher responses to questions about school climate, peer behavior, and personal attitudes, often cross-referencing the results with achievement data to look for trends. Such questionnaires have the advantages of being inexpensive and relatively easy to develop and administer.
Questions of Interpretation
But they also have limitations that may lead to unreliable results, Ms. Duckworth and Mr. Yeager caution. Among those limitations: Survey participants may interpret questions differently from what researchers intended; teachers may be limited in their ability to answer questions about student growth in internal traits, such as motivation; and surveys may fail to detect incremental changes.
In addition, reference –the comparative examples respondents use to gauge personal growth in some areas –may lead to different results from similar respondents.
“Current data and theory suggest schools that promote personal qualities most able –and raise the standards by which students and teachers at that school make comparative judgments—may show the lowest scores and be punished, whereas schools that are least effective may receive the highest scores and be rewarded for ineffectiveness,” the essay says.
Performance tasks, another way of measuring personal traits, include such exercises as the famous “marshmallow test,” in which students are allowed to choose between eating a small number of treats now or a bigger number if they wait for a period of time. The theory is that the students who delay gratification have more self-control.
But while the tasks themselves may seem like objective measures, the conclusions researchers draw from them are often subjective, and engineered tasks may not reflect how students would respond in real-life situations, the essay says.
Ms. Duckworth and Mr. Yeager aren’t suggesting that researchers and educators abandon efforts to measure students’ social, emotional, and character-based traits. Rather, they write, schools should exercise caution in selecting a measurement type and recognize its limitations.
“Given the advantages, limitations, and medium-term potential of such measures,” Ms. Duckworth and Mr. Yeager state, “our hope is that the broader educational community proceeds forward with both alacrity and caution, and with equal parts optimism and humility.”
Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 2015 edition of Education Week as Accountability Measures for Traits Like ‘Grit’ Questioned