I wrote this  piece for my client organization,ProExam with Jeremy Burrus, Ph.D.; it was originally published at the Getting Smart website, and is reposted here. 

The headlines shout that it can’t be done: that there aren’t effective, evidence-based methods for measuring noncognitive skills.

Our response: Yes it can and yes there are.

A front page news article in The New York Times, Testing for Joy and Grit? Schools Nationwide Push to Measure Students’ Emotional Skills, prompted several swift follow-up pieces around the web.

It is excellent to see the effort and attention being dedicated to this subject. We now know that social and emotional skills–which overlap with what many call character strengths, and others label noncognitive attributes–are as or more important than intellectual ability and cognitive aptitude for student and adult success in school, college, careers and life.

Social Emotional Learning Efforts

Developing noncognitive strengths is something nearly every teacher addresses daily. Increasingly schools, districts, networks and states are upping the ante for social-emotional learning (SEL), investing more time, energy and expense into these programs. Accompanying this stepping up is a greater attention to evaluating what’s working and for whom by collecting evidence and assessing needs, opportunities and impact.

Regarding SEL measurement, The New York Times quotes California CORE districts Chief Accountability Officer Noah Bookman: “This work is so phenomenally important to the success of our kids in school and life.” Were it only so simple. Angela Duckworth, Ph.D.‚ a University of Pennsylvania professor who has become widely known for popularizing the term “grit,” is quoted in the piece with what will be for many readers the most salient takeaway: “I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea.”

Their concerns are reasonable: the specific measurement methods cited in the article do have limitations. We concur with reporter Kate Zernike in her statement that relying on “surveys asking students to evaluate recent behaviors or mind-sets, like how many days they remembered their homework, or if they consider themselves hard workers . . . makes the testing highly susceptible to fakery and subjectivity.”

We get it. Our colleague Rich Roberts, Ph.D., chief scientist at ProExam, who is a former principal research scientist at ETS and senior lecturer at University of Sydney, literally wrote the book on the issue of faking and other problems in self-report and survey.

We are familiar with the concerns about what Zernike refers to as subjectivity, also known as reference bias. When you’re evaluating your own proficiency, or evaluating your growth over time, to what peer groups and standards are you comparing yourself?

Overcoming the Issues

Overcoming these obstacles is the task to which Dr. Roberts and his many colleagues and co-authors have devoted most of their careers. His team at ProExam’s Center for Innovative Assessments is currently building a multifaceted assessment solution that gives K-12 students and schools comprehensive reports of noncognitive skills and character strengths named Tessera. (more…)