RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Students in California will be sitting down soon to take high-stakes state tests. And they'll be tested on more than their knowledge of math or reading. Many large districts will be trying for the first time to test students' social and emotional skills. The new federal education law demands that states hold schools accountable for at least one nonacademic outcome, so these kinds of tests are going to become more common nationally. Still, some experts are sounding the alarm on such tests. And for more we turn to Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team who's been following this story for a long time. Good morning.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: And so precisely what are social and emotional skills that would be tested in this context?
KAMENETZ: Well, there's no complete consensus or official list, but they can include anything from empathy to perseverance, believing if you try harder that you can succeed, which is known as growth mindset. What we do know, though, is that they are very, very important indicators. Researchers say that measures of, for example, self-control at a young age can reliably predict about half of your life outcomes, not just your education level but your income or even your lifespan and your health.
MONTAGNE: But one can understand the concern - and even the alarm - over tests of what are often thought of as personality traits.
KAMENETZ: Right, Renee, and that's really part of the problem. I mean, are they traits? Are they skills or habits? If they're traits, it's pretty hard to cultivate them. And the experts I have talked to like Angela Duckworth, who's one of the researchers most associated with social and emotional skills, are pretty adamant that we don't yet know enough about these qualities to be testing or judging individual students. And in fact it could be really unfair to do that.
MONTAGNE: Well, how so?
KAMENETZ: Well, say a test shows that a student appears to lag behind her peers in impulse control. But that's something that could be very much affected by trauma that that child's experiencing out of school. Let's say she's homeless. So is she going to get extra help or is she going to be branded as a low achiever? And another problem that a lot of researchers are pointing out - in California, for example, what they're using are these self-report surveys. And so they ask students to answer questions like, agree or disagree, I usually finish what I start. And while that kind of survey is useful in a research context, it could be really easy to game, you know, to prompt students to give the, quote, unquote, "right answer" if you're actually attaching consequences to that survey.
MONTAGNE: You mentioned, Anya, the word cultivate. What that, though, suggests is the opposite of this, that if schools could figure out what the needs are of their students and the strengths and weaknesses, they could actually cultivate these habits or qualities.
KAMENETZ: Well, that's exactly what schools are trying to do not only in California but all around the country. And they're developing lesson plans. They're developing curricula. They're trying to improve in these measures. And they are asking these questions to find out how they are doing. But the issue is really that, you know, to impose consequences on schools for doing a bad job with this before we really know if the tests are reliable or indeed if it's possible, that would be very premature. And that's really what the argument is about right now.
MONTAGNE: Meaning that potentially this project of testing these emotional and social skills is doomed even before it begins?
KAMENETZ: Well, the hope is that over time we'll develop better, more robust measures that incorporate different kinds of data. So, for example, attendance and behavior statistics, even participation in afterschool activities, these are all kinds of more objective third-party ways that you can take the emotional temperature of kind of a school as a whole and figure out, is this a good place to develop these social and emotional qualities that we know are so important?
MONTAGNE: Anya Kamenetz is with the NPR Ed team. Thanks very much.
KAMENETZ: Thanks, Renee.
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