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A Plan for Measuring Hard-to-Measure, 'Soft' Skills

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This post is by Laura S. Hamilton, a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, and Brian M. Stecher, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND and associate director of RAND Education. 

Recent national and local debates about what outcomes schools should promote have focused on academic skills, such as whether students should be reading more nonfiction texts or solving more complex math problems. But research increasingly suggests that "soft" skills are important for college and career success, as well as for promoting civic engagement.

These competencies fall into two categories:

  • interpersonal, which are important for good working relationships with other people, and
  • intrapersonal, which are influential to how students solve problems and apply themselves in school, work, and other settings.

Collaboration is a classic interpersonal competency; students need to be able to work effectively in groups. This involves listening to others, expressing oneself clearly, embracing different roles to balance the skills of others, etc. Academic tenacity, sometimes called "grit," is an example of an intrapersonal competency. Students need to be able to pursue long-term learning goals and stick with challenging problems, rather than giving up.

Again, research suggests these competencies are related to academic performance and future career success. Moreover, recent studies have found that relatively inexpensive interventions can improve these competencies and lead to improved academic outcomes.

But so far, these important skills are largely unmeasured in schools. And without measures, schools have no idea whether students are acquiring these skills or whether their instruction is effective at promoting them.

But new research may pave the way for change.

We've tried to identify high-quality measures of these competencies and lay out a research and development agenda that could help funders and policymakers promote the development of new, innovative measures. We identified several examples that could provide schools and districts with useful information about the extent to which students are developing these competencies.

But there are challenges associated with using this type of assessment in a school setting. Many of these measures are new and there is limited evidence about their validity. Teachers lack experience teaching these competencies and using data from these measures to make decisions. Schools lack funding and prep time for using the measures on a large scale.

We've also learned from decades of accountability testing that attaching high stakes to test scores or other measures of student performance can lead to undesirable instructional practices and corrupt results so they fail to provide accurate information about student outcomes. If districts adopted inter- and intrapersonal competency measures, it would be crucial to emphasize their value for improvement, not accountability, and provide educators, parents, and students with the training and information necessary to interpret results accurately.

Clearly, there's a need for new research and development to fill gaps so educators can collect information that would help them promote student mastery of the soft skills that seem to matter for college, careers, and citizenship.

Now is the time to launch an ambitious, collaborative effort to help schools recognize and fulfill their role in developing these important, but often overlooked, student competencies. There's still much work to be done, but we hope our research and development plan serves as a first step.

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