Noncognitive Competencies are Important. How Should We Measure Them?

“Multiple lines of research persuasively show that noncognitive skills predict and influence success in academics, careers, and life.” Brookings Institute

The research is clear: noncognitive competencies such as self-advocacy, self-management, growth mindset, and social awareness are predictive of success in college, career, and life.

Consider the following:

  • A landmark James Heckman economics study from 2006 found that noncognitive skills are more important than cognitive skills for employment.
  • A Northeastern University employer survey found the top five skills desired for employment are all noncognitive.
  • Students’ noncognitive skills are also important predictors of educational attainment, employment, and wages. The Perry Preschool Study revealed that early intellectual and social development opportunities predict academic outcomes, earnings, and criminal involvement.

There’s not terminology agreement on this topic among researchers. I’m using the term “noncognitive competencies” because Camille Farrington and her colleagues at University of Chicago, who I believe have written some of the best consolidated research on this topic, have also used the term “noncognitive.” One of the most comprehensive research publications on noncognitve competencies and their role in student success comes from Farrington and colleagues at University of Chicago.

Noncognitive competencies are important. How should we measure them?

We should define the term “measurement.” I am using the term measurement to mean the process of collecting data in order to extract meaningful insights, which can be used to better understand and improve student performance. What schools measure does matter. We should therefore measure noncognitive competencies. Just because we should measure them doesn’t mean we should report them on transcripts or assign them grades or other standardized value. There are other ways for students to demonstrate development of noncognitive skills and other ways for schools to assess and recognize them.

Chris Sturgis, co-founder of Competency Works, wrote: “All of the early innovators of competency education interviewed in 2010 for When Success is the Only Option: Designing Competency-based Pathways for Next Generation Learning emphasized that you need to have academic competencies and habits of mind or lifelong learning competencies. However only progress on the academic competencies should be including in grading or reporting on progress in learning (emphasis mine)…[Instead] the lifelong learning competencies can be used in several ways — to reinforce culture of the school, to engage students about why they might not have been progressing in their learning, and to shape the application of knowledge and skills.”

At the Big Picture Learning school where I taught we used various rubrics, questionnaires, surveys, and other student self-reporting mechanisms to assess students’ noncognitive competencies. We also had weekly feedback sessions between teachers/advisors and students. The noncognitive competencies we measured were not reflected directly on transcripts, and instead were evidenced by high quality student work.

Similarly, at GOA, core competencies are used as communication and reflection tools. Students’ ability to use the language of competencies metacognitively and tie them to their own work is a way for them to demonstrate learning, but it is not the driver of what appears on a report card.

Noncognitive competencies are variable and may even change during the course of a school day. A student might exhibit persistence or grit in writing and not in math. While that merits conversation and a student’s own awareness of that so he/she can grow, it doesn’t need to be reported on a student’s final transcript (and could be damaging until the research on this is more clear).

Researchers and experts agree with this approach. In the New York Times article, Testing for Joy and Grit? Schools Nationwide Push to Measure Students’ Emotional Skills, Angela Duckworth, the MacArthur fellow, said there was no reliable way to measure grit. “Our working title was all measures suck, and they all suck in their own way,” she said. Consider this from Duckworth’s publication Measurement Matters: Assessing Personal Qualities Other Than Cognitive Ability for Educational Purposes: “There has been perennial interest in personal qualities other than cognitive ability that determine success, including self-control, grit, growth mindset, and many others. Attempts to measure such qualities for the purposes of educational policy and practice, however, are more recent…We identify serious challenges to doing so.”

What are the challenges to grading or reporting noncognitive competencies? Teachers rarely have training in using rubrics in noncognitive competencies. Teachers need to deeply know and understand the research, and be able to utilize measurement tools with students. Additionally, we have to be vigilant about bias and perceptions.

What’s next?

Host a conversation. When engaging in the work of identifying noncognitive competencies that matter most, discuss with stakeholders including families, students, and colleagues what will be meaningful for your students, the culture of your school, and what students need to succeed now and in their future.

Do your research. Some of my favorite thinkers, researchers, and writers on noncognive skills have been mentioned in this article and include Camille Farrington (University of Chicago), Carol Dweck (Stanford), and Angela Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania).

Be strategic. Rather than plan to grade or report on noncognitive competencies at your school immediately, be strategic. It might be worthwhile to set up a team at your school to read some of the research and determine your school’s approach to helping students cultivate noncognitive competencies. Rather than focus on reporting, recommendations after a deep review of research may lean more heavily towards student self-reflection, metacognition, and feedback.

Right now we should focus on reporting academic competencies until we know more about the pros and cons of reporting on noncognitive competencies.

There’s an exciting and inspiring movement led by the Mastery Transcript Consortium to reimagine the high school transcript. We should fight the urge to try to standardize and report noncognitive competencies. Instead, we should focus on what that movement is about: recognizing and nurturing lifelong learning, not grading it.

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