Want to Assess Noncognitive Competencies? Examine Student Work

It’s impossible to separate anything we learn or anything our brains do into either cognitive or noncognitive domains.

We should take an approach to assessment of noncognitive competencies in schools that does not attempt to silo cognitive competencies from noncognitive competencies. Therefore, we should be looking for holistic modes of assessment. One answer to this that I see: we should deeply examine student work, and this must include robust student self-assessment.

Camille Farrington and researchers at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research expand on this point in Foundations for Young Adult Success A Developmental Framework: “There may be conceptual reasons for distinguishing between ‘cognitive’ and ‘noncognitive’ factors, but this distinction has no functional meaning. Cognition, emotion, affect, and behavior are reflexive, mutually reinforcing, and inextricably associated with one another as a part of development and learning. Adults will make little headway if they target only one particular component or subcomponent in isolation.”

In a previous piece titled “Noncognitive Competencies are Important. How Should We Measure Them?” I outlined the rationale as well as challenges of measurement of noncognitive competencies. Here, I want to dive deeper into the challenges as well as propose a path forward: make holistic analysis of student work the centerpiece of our assessment strategies.

Proceed with Humility and Caution

Want to assess noncognitive competencies? Proceed with humility and caution.

We know assessment of competencies that lead to success is important. There is a strong evidence base (see the work of William Sedlacek, Carol Dweck, and Camille Farrington) to suggest that a student’s own awareness of their strengths and struggles, possessing an academic mindset, and having a deep understanding of how they learn helps them in school and in life.

Two pieces of recent research around the assessment of noncognitive competencies remind us that: 1. We do not yet know as much as we would like to know about how to assess noncognitive competencies and 2. There are some misconceptions about how to do this well that could result in error.

In Foundations for Young Adult Success A Developmental Framework, the authors explain that there are important questions about measurement of social-emotional skills and noncognitive competencies. The authors ask questions such as: “Is this factor best conceived as an individual characteristic that can be cultivated over time or as a situational response to particular settings, opportunities, or expectations? How can we disentangle young people’s prior capacities from changes induced by setting factors such as adult practice, opportunities for developmental relationships and developmental experiences, or the culture and climate of the place? What is the developmental trajectory on these measures and what are thresholds for what young people need?” The authors also urge caution in the use of tools for measurement until data and science around measurement of noncognitive competencies catches up with interest and demand. The bottom line from reading this report for me is that we need to make sure any assessment is strongly aligned with evidence.

In Measurement Matters by Angela Duckworth and David Yeager, the authors list limitations of both student self-reporting and teacher questionnaires about student personal qualities, using self-control as an example. There’s a nice cartoon from the publication which illustrates how assessment of self-control might be subject to, well, subjectivity.

If assessment centers around student work, we potentially avoid pitfalls around isolating competencies and avoid making them separate from the work that students do in the classroom. We also avoid pitfalls around assessment based on, for example, questionnaires for teachers and students. Instead, we should seek to create an environment where assessment is based on student work produced, driven by extensive feedback to foster student growth.

We Should Align Assessment with Student Work

If we emphasize projects, internships, community service, and real world learning opportunities that the student has created, completed, or executed, we can get a sense of who the student is and what they know and can do. We allow their work and who they are to take center stage.

This type of student work should be apparent in high school transcripts. Unfortunately, many transcripts or report cards simply give course titles and grades. We should have transcripts and final reporting mechanisms that show the whole child, beyond their grades and their work in typical cognitive domains. An organization we are fortunate to work with, The Mastery Transcript Consortium, is tackling the issue of high school transcripts and is on a mission to reimagine the transcript to allow for students and their work to take center stage.

Here are a few ideas for next steps.

  1. Learn more. Start by reading reports linked within this blog.
  2. Hold a study group to discuss with a team at your school.
  3. Consider longer term professional learning around noncognitive competencies with educators at your school. Using noncognitive competencies as assessment tools in courses and student projects is often something that teachers don’t have much expertise in. Many teachers have been hired for their content expertise and they are much more invested in, and/or have been trained in, the assessment and reporting of cognitive competencies.
  4. Ensure competencies are written in student-friendly language.
  5. Use single point rubrics.
  6. Encourage student reflection about their own work.
  7. Explore school models which encourage public exhibitions of student work and deep examination of student work, with students heavily involved and perhaps leading the assessment process. Check out the deeper learning network of schools as well as XQ Schools as examples of such models.

This work is important. We should proceed with caution and humility, being sure that we know the research about how to best assess noncognitive competencies. We should focus assessments on student work. In order to reap the full benefits of assessment of noncognitive competencies, students must be actively involved in the assessment process, perhaps even its leader. This means the traditional organization of courses must shift to put students at the center of the assessment process.

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