Research Stories

The Best Means to Measure

As more attention is paid to the “soft skills” of students — including grit and persistence — a new article delves into the reliability of their measurement

Usable Knowledge
January 5, 2015
jumble of words in the story

Harvard Graduate School of Education Associate Professor Martin R. West, a Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, recently published "The Limitations of Self-Report Measures of Non-cognitive Skills" on the Brookings' website. An excerpt follows.

Recent evidence from economics and psychology highlights the importance of traits other than general intelligence for success in school and in life. Disparities in so-called “non-cognitive skills” appear to contribute to the academic achievement gap separating rich from poor students. Non-cognitive skills may also be more malleable and thus amenable to intervention than cognitive ability, particularly beyond infancy and early childhood. Understandably, popular interest in measuring and developing students’ non-cognitive skills has surged.

As practice and policy race forward, however, research on non-cognitive skills remains in its infancy. There is little agreement on which skills are most important, their stability within the same individual in different contexts, and, perhaps most fundamentally, how they can be reliably measured. Whereas achievement tests that assess how well children can read, write, and cipher are widely available, non-cognitive skills are typically assessed using self-report and, less frequently, teacher-report questionnaires. Like achievement tests, questionnaires have the advantage of quick, cheap, and easy administration. And unlike behavioral proxies that might be used to gauge the overall strength of a student’s character, questionnaires can be crafted to capture more specific traits to be targeted for development.

Read the full article here.

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.