Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Got Grit? Maybe

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Got Grit? Maybe

Article excerpt

Self-reported survey data--concerning students' levels of grit or their mindsets--are all the rage. But beware of using such data for school improvement.

Education historians have often documented the faddish nature of education reform. According to the late David Tyack and his colleague Larry Cuban (1990), schools in the United States are in the habit of reforming--over and over again.

Remember the aptitude tests in the 1940s? The vocational counseling agenda in the 1950s and 1960s? The personality testing and dispositions push in the 1970s? These reforms have come and gone, only to be resurrected years later under the guise of a new, improved solution for public education.

Today's student dispositions movement is such a trend. It's called by many names: socio-emotional learning outcomes, noncognitive indicators, affective factors, behavioral objectives and skills. The constructs that currently animate it are "grit" and "growth mindset." Grit-oriented reformers tell us we can overcome the academic achievement gap by boosting nonacademic or noncognitive factors. Betting that noncognitive dispositions will make a difference in education outcomes, some policymakers are now taking their cues from Aesop's tortoise: Although the tortoise doesn't seem to possess the skills required to win the race, he does have the "grit" that enables him to prevail.

The problem with the dispositions bandwagon is that there is thin evidence for the reliability and instructional uses of noncognitive factors in K-12 schools. Even if grit does make a difference, it remains unclear how to assess that difference or to teach students how to be more "gritty." So the question is, what value do these noncognitive indicators have if they cannot provide reliable guides to improved teaching and learning? Educators aren't interested in psychological traits and factors in the abstract. Instead, our necessary focus is on the teaching and learning that happen daily in the classroom as students interact with conceptually difficult subject matter.

It is time to ground the dispositions discourse in the principles of educational assessment.

The assessment triangle

We've known for decades that psychological factors are not the same as educational measures. Unlike psychological researchers who work with relatively small, voluntary samples of subjects, educational assessment experts work in high-stakes settings, with significant consequences for children in public schools, many of whom represent vulnerable, historically disadvantaged groups.

Educational assessment experts have developed the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, & National Council on Measurement in Education, 2014). These are validation guidelines for reviewing fairness and bias in addition to what experts call "a logic of assessment," to guard against overgeneralization, spurious claims, and invalid inferences from data. Let's take a moment to review the logic of educational assessment and see how it's represented in the Assessment Triangle, a framework for understanding the connections among what students know, how we might observe their performances, and how we might know if they've acquired knowledge and skills in a meaningful way (see Figure 1).

Using the Assessment Triangle as a guide, the National Research Council (Pellegrino at al., 2001) noted that every assessment is based on three interconnected principles:

   A theory of what students know and how they develop
   competence in a subject domain (cognition), tasks or
   situations used to collect evidence about student performance
   (observation), and a method for drawing
   inferences from those observations (interpretation)
   (p. 36).

Principle #1: Cognition

Key to the logic of assessment is the notion that everything in K-12 education rests on how students learn and master a subject. …

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