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Should Behavior And Attitude Be Factors In Student Success?

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By: Robyn Gee

The focus on academic achievement is intense in today’s classroom culture. We’ve seen kindergartners with private tutors, and a major push for test score improvement throughout the country. Constantly assessing and reassessing students’ mastery of content is daily business for teachers, in order to measure students’ individual academic deficits.

But there seems to be a trend of measuring another side of students as well -- a student’s emotional, behavioral, and attitudinal strengths and weaknesses. The question is whether these factors can determine where a student stands in terms of academic success.

One example of this is a New York City school that had incorporated character traits like optimism and grit into the curriculum -- the subject of a recent New York Times article.

Another example is the ENGAGE component of the ACT exam, which launched this past year. The ACT test is most known as an exam that students take when applying to college. The ENGAGE component is available for middle school and high school students and measures three areas: Motivation, Social Engagement, and Self-Regulation.

The test website reads, “ACT developed ENGAGE to measure students' behaviors and psychosocial attributes, which are critical but often overlooked components of their success. Backed by our enduring expertise in research, ENGAGE can predict—with a remarkable degree of accuracy—how likely each of your students is to graduate high school, and whether they will earn at least a 2.0 GPA.” (See the chart of behavioral characteristics here.)

Youth Radio reached out to Daisuke Akibe, Associate Professor of Child Development, Educational Psychology, & Urban Education at Queens College in New York, who said she is happy to see this increased emphasis on individual psychological factors.

However, she says, “I am not really sure if I am comfortable with the notion of ‘measuring’ the attitudinal and other ‘fuzzy’ psychological characteristics...let alone using them to predict future academic achievements.” Akibe said there is traditionally a divide between education researchers who have long subscribed to the notion, “if we can set the environment ‘correctly,’ all kids can learn,” and psychology researchers who have emphasized individual characteristics like temperament, and the ability to delay gratification, in an academic context.

After looking at the ACT chart, Akibe said she thinks it is "icky in spirit" and perpetuates a stereotype of what a good student looks like. "I don't think there's any data that establish the relationship between "goodie two shoes-ness" and future success," she said.

She is particularly concerned about the "family involvement" category, which we normally define to include supervision of homework, communicating with parents, etc. Akibe said that assuming a relationship between family involvement and academic performance is dangerous. "Even in published articles, scholars just assume that parental involvement would facilitate children's learning.  I have looked for data backing this assumption up convincingly, but I haven't been successful."

Ultimately, she believes these psychological characteristics could be used in moderation very effectively, but many attitudes cannot be measured, especially in children. “There hasn't been sufficient empirical evidence to back up the claim that they necessarily predict future achievement,” she added.

But can attitudes and psychological elements, like temperament, even be taught to children?

Akibe said, “I think attitudes can be taught to a degree, but there are other psychological features that are more heavily influences by genetics, like temperament and cognitive capability, and biology, like depression and pessimism, and not everything can be readily changed.”

On a side note, Akibe isn’t sure she wants to see a classroom full of students with identical “achievement-related attitudes and other individual psychological characteristics.” She said, “Some of us care about doing well in formal education, and others don't. We have different value priorities--which makes this country so interesting.”

And then there's the question of what to do with the results of the ENGAGE test -- Akibe has concerns with that too. " Are we going to conduct interventions to help those with low scores along specific domains?  Are we going to put the high-scorers in gifted classes?"

Maybe we'll see answers to these questions in the future, and maybe we'll see definitive evidence linking certain traits to academic achievement. But maybe, as Akibe believes, this is just a fad, similar to "self-esteem" has been since the 80's. She says even though parents and educators full-heartedly believe that it is important to boost a child's self-esteem, there is no data substantiating this notion.

Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.

Youth Radio/Youth Media International (YMI) is youth-driven converged media production company that delivers the best youth news, culture and undiscovered talent to a cross section of audiences. To read more youth news from around the globe and explore high quality audio and video features, visit Youthradio.org