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IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Should We Grade Students on Non-Cognitive Skills?
By Jess Hench & Xianxuan Xu 20-Jan-17
There is increased interest in developing and researching non-cognitive skills in students, which include behaviors such as optimism, resilience, adaptability, and conscientiousness. Education policies in the U.S. and Europe are stressing the importance of such skills as complements to academic achievement. For instance, federal education law—the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—mandates that assessment of school performance in the U.S. must include at least one nonacademic measure. For this reason, some schools are focusing on social-emotional skills. In one example, California districts are beginning to test students on such skills as self-control and conscientiousness. To practice, one teacher (Zernike 2016) timed fifth-grade students to see how long they could use good behavior, including raising hands, maintaining eye contact, and disagreeing civilly. These behaviors are rewarded with simple prizes. A 2011 analysis of 213 school programs teaching social-emotional skills found they improved academic performance. Since then, these skills have been emphasized in schools. On the plus side, teaching these skills can help students develop more holistically, rather than focusing solely on test scores. A group called Transforming Education studied over one million students in California, and found that teachers who do training for student behavior have fewer behavioral incidents in the classroom, therefore leaving more time to focus on effective teaching (Zernike 2016). Research has found that non-cognitive skills may be more amenable to direct intervention than cognitive ability, especially beyond infancy and early childhood (West et al. 2015). Angela Duckworth wrote the 2016 book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, which suggests that having a combination of passion and persistence, labeled “grit,” is the key to success. Duckworth (2016) explains how in her extensive studies of schools, she correlated the character strengths of grit, self-control, and optimism with achieving goals. She also found that the skills of social intelligence and gratitude help students relate to other people. Lastly, curiosity, open-mindedness, and zest for learning increase independent thinking. Duckworth emphasizes social-emotional learning, yet the author disagrees with the practice of assessing students on these skills to measure school performance. Duckworth (2016) wrote an opinion piece in which she explains how her push for character development may have contributed to the focus on high-stakes character assessment, which she claims to “vigorously oppose.” The problem Duckworth explains is the means by which these skills are measured, as self-assessments, are unreliable. Students with various culturally-derived work ethics may rate themselves differently than their peers in other countries or cultures. Differences were also found between students in high-performing charter schools compared to district schools, as students likely hold themselves to a higher standard. Duckworth warns against using rewards and punishments in character development, as they may remove the intrinsic value that students place on developing these skills. In addition, this assessment of non-cognitive skills may lead to blaming students for not having enough “zest” or enthusiasm, suggesting their performance is their own fault (Zernike 2016). A 2015 study (Egalite, Mills, and Green) focused on 240 high school students. Researchers gave students a written survey that measured their self-perceived “grit” (i.e., passion and perseverance for long-term goals). Findings revealed that self-reported grit did not correlate with persistence on a challenging task, conscientiousness, and ability to delay gratification. The researchers warn against using high-stakes assessment of non-cognitive skills until more is known about them, how they are developed, and how they interact with academic achievement. In sum, researchers in this field generally believe that non-cognitive skills should be taught, but that they should not be measured by high-stakes assessments. l www.StrongeAndAssociates.com
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