POLITICS
12/30/2014 04:05 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

Why Schools Should Pay More Attention To Students' Grit And Self-Control

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It may be just as important to evaluate schools based on students’ levels of motivation and perseverance as it is to judge them based on students' standardized test scores.

A report released by the National Bureau of Economic Research in December argues that policymakers tend to focus too much on test scores even though noncognitive skills, like motivation and perseverance, are just as predictive of students' future success. The researchers from the University of Chicago, Belgium's KU Leuven and Maastricht University in The Netherlands looked at the outcomes of more than 25 programs designed to boost students' cognitive and noncognitive abilities. They concluded that it is possible both to measure and to teach these noncognitive skills.

Scores on the kinds of achievement tests given at U.S. schools, which measure knowledge, tend to be highly correlated with scores on IQ tests. Cognitive skills, including the abilities to focus on, analyze and remember information, are related to IQ.

But achievement tests "do not adequately capture non-cognitive skills such as perseverance ('grit'), conscientiousness, self-control, trust, attentiveness, self-esteem and self-efficacy ... which are valued in the labour market, in school, and in society at large," the paper states.

The researchers noted that noncognitive skills are predictive of job performance, with employer surveys finding that such skills are valued in the workplace. Indeed, they wrote, "A growing body of empirical research shows that non-cognitive skills rival IQ in predicting educational attainment, labour market success, health, and criminality."

One of the authors, Tim Kautz, suggested schools should establish programs to measure and develop students' noncognitive skills.

"Right now we're really relying on achievement tests -- schools can be shut down if they don't improve their achievement tests every year," said Kautz, a senior research assistant and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago. "But it turns out they aren't all that predictive of the outcomes we really care about."

The report says that a person's cognitive abilities become relatively fixed in childhood, while noncognitive skills are still malleable through adolescence.

In particular, Kautz has analyzed data from the Chicago public schools. He said he "found that a ninth-grade achievement test only predicts about 10 percent variation of kids who finish high school. It’s not all that predictive." A combined measure of students' grades, credits, disciplinary infractions and absences was more likely to predict who would ultimately graduate.

According to Kautz, measures like attendance can aid in assessing students’ levels of motivation and conscientiousness. These latter characteristics, the researchers wrote, may play a greater role in determining a person’s life success than his or her performance on standardized tests.

Intervention programs for adolescents have proven successful in cultivating noncognitive skills -– even for at-risk students, according to the paper. One program in Chicago offered male teens a mix of academic tutoring and group therapy. Participants ended up significantly reducing their number of absences.

"The available evidence suggests that the most promising adolescent interventions are those that target non-cognitive skills as well as programmes that offer mentoring, guidance and information," the paper states.

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