Non-cognitive skills, Part II

More than just test scores

Continuing the theme of my last post, I want to reference Henry M. Levin’s paper “More than just test scores,” which can be accessed at  I’ve followed Dr. Levin’s work for several years and I’ve enjoyed his contributions to the knowledge base on assessment issues.  In this brief, published online on August 30, 2012, Levin provides an outstanding and thorough discussion, supported by extensive research citations, on the relationship between test scores and earnings.  He notes “…the measured relationships between test scores and earnings or productivity are modest and explain a relatively small share of the larger link between educational attainment and economic outcomes.”

Non-cognitive skills mean career readiness

Much of his paper discusses “the effects that education has on the development of interpersonal and intrapersonal skills and capabilities that affect the quality and productivity of the labour force.”  It was Levin’s work here that prompted me to write this post and my last post on non-cognitive skills, starting with the SCANS work from 13 years ago, which offers substantial background to the reader for Levin’s research analysis.  Just reading Levin’s abstract should be enough to keep you reading to the end of the paper, and then checking out some of the references.

Nowhere does Levin suggest that cognitive skills, as measure by test scores, are not important contributors to economic success later in life.  But throughout the research cited one reads repeatedly that academic achievement is not the only measure of economic success.  One must conclude that focusing 100% on improving test scores as the be-all and end-all for education is a narrow and likely misguided agenda.  Coupled with the SCANS report, it’s clear that a focus on test scores and the corresponding narrowing of curriculum to cognitive issues only is not the best means to improve America’s economic competitiveness or the earnings potential of American youth.

Noting that the discussion of world-class educational standards, and comparisons of nations on various international tests leaves out “other attributes of school or student performances,…” Levin argues that “…basing world-class standards on measures of student achievement is a very limited approach to evaluating any educational system.  To meet the economic, political, social, and personal demand for competency, much more is required of students and adults than just cognitive proficiencies as measured by test scores.”  And he echoes the SCANS work when he suggests that interpersonal and intrapersonal skills are dimensions that can’t be ignored.

Test scores don’t explain earnings

By reviewing numerous studies on the connection between academic achievement and later earnings. Levin adds depth to the common understanding that more schooling equates to higher incomes.  This is correct, but the assumption that the higher earnings are associated with cognitive skills is overstated.  He identifies numerous studies that include test scores in their analysis of schooling and earnings, and they find that the “…impact of schooling on earnings retains more than 80% of its estimated effect on earnings, even after accounting for student achievement.”  (See Bowles, Gintis, and Osborne, 2001, “The determinants of earnings: A behavioral approach,” Journal of Economic Literature, 39(4), 137-1176.)  In plain English, test scores account for “a minority fraction” of the relationship between earnings and schooling, and other elements of schooling “must be accounted for.” Taking on the claim that test scores have predictive validity for worker productivity, Levin cites research that shows scores account for only 6% of the variance in productivity, “leaving 94% to be explained by factors other than the test result.”

So, it seems to me, the research isn’t particularly supportive of pushing exclusively for high academic achievement to return America to world-class productivity.  And besides, the US worker is already among the most productive anywhere, even when our test performances appear mid-range.

Graduation rates do equate with economic performance

The relationship between finishing high school with a diploma and increased lifetime earnings is well-established.  Levin offers some depth to this discussion by pointing to research on five educational interventions to prevent dropouts, which offer net benefits to taxpayers through public heath savings, crime savings, and increased exhale revenues from earnings.  Interestingly, he also notes that GED graduates do not show the same benefits–their test scores are similar to graduates, but their earnings were inferior.

Having shown that cognitive skills and tests scores are not very good predictors of economic performance, but high school completion is, there is something other than academics of value for students who stay in school and complete a diploma other than compiling academic skills.  And these factors, not currently tested, play as important a role, or a greater role, in helping students become ready for the world of work.  I strongly suggest you read the rest of Levin’s article, in which he reviews what those characteristics are, and how schools can improve the way they are supported.  In fact, Levin identifies several programs that teach the social and emotional skills, and cites  research supporting the efficacy of doing so.  He spends some time on the SEL movement–social and emotional learning–and goes beyond identifying the employment benefits by identifying research that shows SEL program intervention “…were comparable to or exceeded the results found in the literature for improving student achievement.”  This is a really significant finding–“…interventions to develop social and emotional skills have particular salience for improving student achievement.”

I’ll end with a few sentences from Levin that should inspire you to read this piece several times, and read some of the back-up research he has so capably assembled.  “The almost singular focus on test score performance in educational assessment at both domestic and international levels does rest on some foundation…. But the evidence does not support the assumption that cognitive skills are all that counts and that they alone can produce healthy and productive adult personalities.”   “Far from being harmless, the focus on test scores and the omission of the non-cognitive impact of schools can create far-reaching damage.”   “Other goals may be as, or more, important in the long run in terms of creating productive, equitable, and socially cohesive societies and economic growth.” (See Gradstein and Justman, 2002, “Education, social cohesion, and economic growth.”  American Economic Review, 92)4_ 1192-1204.

As educators and activists for meaningful educational policy, we have to stop simply looking at easy solutions and start listening to what employers say they want.  Listening to employers was a novel idea when the SCANs report came out in 2000, and it’s likely that those who publish achievement tests and those who push them as easy measures of future productivity will continue to ignore employers in the future.  Real educators should speak up.

Non-cognitive skills can’t be overlooked! Part I

Better Education Overseas Doesn’t Explain Outsourcing

Reformers are obsessed with cognitive measures of student achievement.  The reform movement maintains that ELA, math and science scores must be raised in order for American to be a world class competitor on the international scene.  I recall this same theme being promoted in the early ’70’s when New York began the Regents Action Plan to improve test scores.  I listened to state ed department experts justify higher standards in social studies by saying that if our students didn’t know more history, they couldn’t compete with other nations in manufacturing.

That was bunkham, and its essentially the same argument in replay we’re hearing today.  I earned much of the cost of my college education working in a skilled labor setting building machinery that went into automobile production factories.  I rubbed elbows with auto workers.  The skills they needed to manufacture cars had nothing to do with history or social studies, and for that matter on ELA, science or math.  Today, the low wage earners assembling iphones for Foxconn or sewing our clothes in Bangladesh need not be writers or mathematicians–they need to be willing to work in conditions that are, frankly, abysmally unsafe, without benefits, and accept that they have no recourse.  In other words, American jobs have been lost to countries with working conditions Americans would consider slave labor if they were found in U.S. factories.  The educational achievement of Americans is not the issue here at all–profits are the issue.

SCANS Skills–What do Employers Want From Workers?

Now that we are testing the life out of schools at all levels, what evidence is there that cognitive skills might translate into better jobs?  Let’s start this exploration with a look at the skills employers want their workers to possess.  Since schools are eliminating courses, programs, or activities that promote noncognitive skills, what role do noncognitive skills have in the lives of successful wage earners as described by employers?

We should take another look  at a report that came out in 2000, when the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education formed the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) to study the competencies and skills that workers need to succeed in today’s workplace. The results became What Work Requires of Schools: A SCANS Report for America 2000.  The link above provides a summary of those skills, which start with five competencies, each of which is broken down into additional elements that I’ve not included.

  1. Resources: Identifies, organizes, plans, and allocates resources
  2. Interpersonal: Works with others
  3. Information: Acquires and evaluates information
  4. Systems: Understands complex interrelationships
  5. Technology: Works with a variety of technologies

Examining the detailed breakdowns of these competencies will enlighten the reader–they are virtually all skills that are not taught in schools when the emphasis is on passing state or federally mandated tests.  The information competency comes closest to something we emphasize in K-12 programs today, but the SCANS versions are side-effects of the K-12 content rather than primary goals.

In a second level of SCANS skills, also found in the summary link above, a three-part foundation for SCANS skills is suggested.  I’ll list the three foundations here–italicized elements should be a part of Common Core competencies, and in red, I’ll identify those skills that are not built into the implementation of Common Core curricula that can be tested.

SCANS Foundational Skills

Basic Skills:

Reads, writes, performs arithmetic and mathematical operations, listens, and speaks

Thinking Skills:

Thinks creatively, makes decisions, solves problems, visualizes, knows how to learn, and reasons.  One might argue that Common Core curricula is moving toward these kinds of skills, but when you examine the detailed descriptions of each of these skills, you will see that they are, except for solving problems and visualizing, not particularly testable, and hence are unlikely to be a part of the curricular changes that the CCSS will inspire.

Personal Qualities:

Responsibility, self-esteem, sociability, self-management, integrity, and honesty.  There’s nothing here that is a direct focus of the Common Core, nor are these qualities testable with measures of academic achievement.

Looking at the foundational elements of SCANS skills, you’ll see that employers have identified 17 foundational skills, 10 of which are not academic measures and are not likely to be a part of Common Core curricula or Common Core tests because they simply are not measurable in any easy way.  They are skills that might be incidentally and indirectly learned in schools, but are infrequently or never explicitly taught.  When the SCANS report first came out, there was considerable interest among those who were involved with Career and Technical Education–folks had to show how SCANS skills were incorporated into their CTE programs.  Sadly, with cognitive skills taking the main role in testing, SCANS skills and CTE programs are on the back burner once again.

Social and Emotional Learning

However, there are lots of programs available that explicitly attempt to teach these skills and that have a reasonably strong evidence base supporting their use in schools.  The social emotional learning movement (SEL) is among the best researched.  Find out more about SEL from  At the bottom of this edutopia page you’ll also find organizations that promote SEL. 

If we can wrest education reform away from the profiteers and politicians, perhaps we can balance our K-12 goals to reinstate noncognitive education once again.  When is the reform movement going to pay attention?