Experts Say Measuring Non-Cognitive Skills Won't Work, But Districts Still Try


Federal education law now requires one non-academic measure of school progress, which has led some districts to consider including students' social and emotional growth as a performance measure. Education researchers and practicing educators increasingly agree that what are sometimes called "non-cognitive skills" like empathy, self-regulation and the ability to understand another person's perspective, are an important component of improving academic outcomes.  A much thornier issue remains how to accurately measure qualities that are so personal and context specific.

“I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,” said Angela Duckworth, the MacArthur fellow who has done more than anyone to popularize social-emotional learning, making “grit” — the title of her book to be released in May — a buzzword in schools.

She resigned from the board of the group overseeing the California project, saying she could not support using the tests to evaluate school performance. Last spring, after attending a White House meeting on measuring social-emotional skills, she and a colleague wrote a paper warning that there were no reliable ways to do so. “Our working title was all measures suck, and they all suck in their own way,” she said.

And there is little agreement on what skills matter: Self-control? Empathy? Perseverance? Joy?

“There are so many ways to do this wrong,” said Camille A. Farrington, a researcher at the University of Chicago who is working with a network of schools across the country to measure the development of social-emotional skills. “In education, we have a great track record of finding the wrong way to do stuff.”

One argument in favor of measuring non-cognitive skills is tied to the funding that would support teaching those skills. The system tends to provide instructional dollars for things that get measured. But can this be done effectively?