College & Workforce Readiness

Experts Begin to Identify Nonacademic Skills Key to Success

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 23, 2010 6 min read
Kevin Stonewall, the director of alumni affairs at North Lawndale College Preparatory High School in Chicago, talks with recent alumni who have returned to the school over the winter break from college. Stonewall follows its graduates through their first year of college, keeping tabs on them through online social networking, transcript requests, direct contacts, and connections to area colleges. In the process, the school is able to direct students to support services and get feedback from students on how well it prepared them for college.
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As federal pressure intensifies to ensure students graduate ready for college and careers, researchers are beginning to go beyond identifying the subject-matter classes students need to succeed after high school and home in on the cognitive and noncognitive skills that also contribute to success.

College and career readiness has become a hot political topic for education under the Obama administration. The president has set a national goal to have the highest proportion of college-educated adults in the world by 2020, and it’s one of the four guiding goals of the economic-stimulus package’s education grants.

Yet at the same time, research shows an average of two out of five traditional college students and more than half of nontraditional ones will take at least one remedial class, and higher education administrators report incoming students frequently are not equipped to cope with the greater academic, financial, and social responsibilities of college and work.

More and more, research shows young people need the same cognitive and social-emotional skills to complete school and progress in the workplace, and, moreover, that those skills can be taught and tested like any other subject in school.

“The problem is college eligibility was what we focused on previously, not readiness; we haven’t really defined what ‘readiness’ means,” said Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst with Education Sector, a Washington think tank, at the Building a Better Student research seminar held here Dec. 8-10. “We focused on whether they have the course credits, the time spent … and that’s important, but we haven’t figured out if they have what they need to be really college-ready,” she said. Students are “getting through high school graduation and even then, they’re not ready.”

While 43 states, Washington and the U.S. Virgin Islands have adopted the common-core academic standards as a benchmark for helping students to be considered ready for college or work, research also points to five key noncognitive indicators that a student will need to be able to complete college and become successfully employed, according to Paul R. Sackett, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He was one of 21 researchers discussing the issue at the seminar, held by the Washington-based American Educational Research Association, the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, and the New York City-based College Board, which administers the SAT college-entrance exam.

Dispositions for Success

Across education and industry, research by Mr. Sackett; Neal Schmitt, a psychology professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing; and others shows the biggest predictor of success is a student’s conscientiousness, as measured by such traits as dependability, perseverance through tasks, and work ethic. Agreeableness, including teamwork, and emotional stability were the next-best predictors of college achievement, followed by variations on extroversion and openness to new experiences, Mr. Sackett found.

“If you take a close look at these commercial tests [given during job interviews], they are compound traits of the top three traits” predicting post-high school success, he said, and the top three traits are also closely associated with a student’s ability to perform well on a task and avoid bad work behavior, such as theft or absenteeism.

Each student’s personality is different, of course, Mr. Sackett said, but, “we have to differentiate between that and behavior.”

“You can learn to behave contrary to your disposition,” he added. “You can learn to behave in dependable ways. For some people, it’s second nature, for others, it’s a real struggle.” Either way, he said, schools can teach and measure noncognitive, college-readiness skills just as they do reading or mathematics—and they may be just as important.

Most schools do not teach or measure nonacademic readiness indicators directly, though they do pop up through conduct reports, attendance, team-project evaluations, and other areas. However, several groups are developing more-comprehensive assessments they hope will help school administrators predict a student’s academic and social-emotional readiness trajectory.

Roger P. Weissberg, a psychology and education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the director of the university’s Social and Emotional Research Group is building “common-core standards for social-emotional learning,” while Steve Robbins, the vice president for research at ACT Inc., said the Iowa City, Iowa-based testing company is integrating academic achievement, behavior, and career planning into its K-12 programs.

The Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University Center for the Social Organization of Schools, known for its oft-cited research on early-warning indicators of students at risk of dropping out of high school, has started to explore ways to find similar early-warning signs for students at risk of graduating high school only to drop out later in college, according to Ruth C. Neild, a research scientist at the center.

“There’s a possibility of using indicators across systems,” Ms. Neild said, such as connecting school district data to local college information on a student’s course placement, remediation record, credit accumulation in key areas such as language or math, and matriculation for a second semester or year. She pointed as an example to the New York City public school system, which is trying to merge its data with those of the City University of New York.

Transition Support

Just as states move to align their K-12 content standards with higher education requirements, Mr. Weissberg argued, district administrators should similarly align instruction in the noncognitive skills students will need when they are on their own. For example, K-12 teachers sometimes notice a student struggling academically or emotionally and flag him or her for additional support, but high schools often do not teach students how to identify their own learning needs and find the resources and support they need.

“There’s such a view of rugged individualism: You go to college and you’re on your own now. I see a lot of kids become lost and stressed,” Mr. Weissberg said. “You get to the new setting, and some of the competencies you had don’t generalize to the new situation and you need support to help you adapt those competencies to the new situation.”

The two-campus North Lawndale College Preparatory High School in Chicago is trying to help its students adapt through a system of student support and feedback that continues through the first year of college.

A full-time alumni counselor uses a combination of online social networking, transcript requests, direct contacts, and connections to area colleges to monitor how students are performing, direct them to support services, and get feedback on how well the school prepared them for college.

“For the alumni counselor, the contact is pretty much daily” with 67 to 80 students each year, said Nicole Howard, the principal of the school’s Christiana Campus. The counselor can help students figure out financial-aid issues and class-schedule confusion, among other typical problems. “Sometimes, the supports are there, and the kids just don’t know how to get to them, whether it’s free tutoring or the writing labs,” Ms. Howard said. “Sometimes, they just have trouble navigating college culture.”

The school also has a separate research team that reviews alumni transcripts and feedback from regular focus groups. The team uses the information to inform the school’s teacher professional development and course offerings. As an example, Ms. Howard said, “We heard from the students who took [Advanced Placement] courses in senior year how much easier it was for them to take college math and English, so we’ve made a point to rev up our AP offerings sooner.” The school also backward-mapped college research papers into a four-year series of research projects all students now are required to complete at each grade level.

The school is in the process of conducting a three-year study to determine whether its model is resulting in graduates who are more likely to complete college.

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Experts Begin to Identify Nonacademic Skills Key to Success


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