Assessment Commentary

We Should Measure Students’ Noncognitive Skills

By Jonathan E. Martin — July 27, 2016 4 min read

When a 9th grader in Salt Lake City—let’s call him Arnoldo—refused to do any work in his English class, his teachers weren’t finding a way to connect with him. The school’s social-emotional-learning teacher gave him an assessment of his noncognitive skills and saw he was struggling in resiliency and social awareness. She was able to support Arnoldo with strategies to improve those skills, such as setting small goals and monitoring progress. Arnoldo’s grades and attendance improved, and he began to connect with peers through school activities. Rather than approaching the problem as an academic one, Arnoldo’s teachers focused on the social-emotional skills he needed to be successful.

Recent psychological research has shown the importance of social-emotional learning for student success in the classroom and in life, and many school districts are exploring how to teach and measure noncognitive skills. The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires that each state include at least one nonacademic indicator in its school evaluation measures.

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In California, a group of large urban school districts, known as the CORE districts, redesigned the accountability system so that school culture and climate, as well as social-emotional-learning metrics, are 40 percent of their school quality index. On a nationwide scale, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is adding new measurements for student noncognitive skills, and at a global level, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is doing the same.

As this shift occurs, there is a growing need for reliable assessment of noncognitive skills in order to guide support and resources for students’ individual growth.

Some leaders and educators in the noncognitive-skills movement have argued that we shouldn’t use noncognitive assessments for evaluating schools or students. Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who developed a way to measure the noncognitive skill known as “grit,” has spoken out against grading schools or students on these skills because most current assessments can produce misleading results or easily inflate students’ scores.

While the skepticism is well-founded—not all such measurements work well—there are researchers of psychology and educational assessment, as well as cognitive scientists at various measurement companies, who have developed evidence-based systems to measure students’ character strengths. These systems reduce the subjectivity that plagued first-generation measurement methods of character traits, such as surveys and self-reports.

With these advances, schools will be able to effectively measure the noncognitive skills they have long known are important for student success.

There is a growing need for reliable assessment of noncognitive skills in order to guide support and resources for students’ individual growth."

As an adviser for district and school strategic implementation for ProExam, a nonprofit company that develops standards of credentialing in higher education, health care, and other professions, I help to advise researchers who created a K-12 assessment system for noncognitive skills that was successfully piloted in 20 regular-public, charter, and private schools this past spring and will be available for schools to use in the fall. Teachers or counselors administer the assessment to students online and can choose to do so annually or multiple times a year to generate data about such character strengths as responsibility, resilience, teamwork, curiosity, and leadership.

The assessment supplements traditional surveys and self-reporting with multiple-choice items and scenario-based judgment tests. In the former, students must select which statements best describe them, all of which—to prevent bias—are presented as favorable. In the latter, students are given everyday scenarios and asked to rate the effectiveness of problem-solving strategies for each one.

Similar testing methods for noncognitive skills have been reliable in large-scale research conducted with the military, colleges, and medical schools.

With the use of these kinds of assessment systems—and others that have been proven effective—educators can measure noncognitive skills with confidence and then use the information to help students succeed in a variety of ways. When students underperform in math, for example, teachers can use a noncognitive assessment to discern whether the students need to build their organizational and time-management skills rather than undergo mathematical remediation. Teachers can also distinguish between the students who are thriving in noncognitive areas and those who need more attention and support.

Likewise, districts can discern which social-emotional-learning programs are most effective for developing these skills. School leaders committed to educating the whole child will be able to present their boards and supervisors with data for both academic and noncognitive successes as part of their evaluation process. School board members who demand metrics for strategic planning will have evidence of their schools’ success (or lack thereof) in developing student character.

These measurements are a critical step toward closing opportunity gaps and understanding what students need to lead more successful lives.

Educators should certainly be cautious about social-and-emotional tests, to make sure they are effective assessments and work toward valuable, not damaging, ends. Creators of measurement systems must support ongoing evaluation of their noncognitive-skills tests in order to continue improving measurement methods.

But if educators and school leaders keep an open mind, these assessments could serve their intended purpose: to help schools support the needs and well-being of all students.

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