The High Stakes of 'Soft Skills'


Apr 7, 2016

Teacher with four students working as a group

Photo by Steve Debenport/iStock

This commentary originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report on April 6, 2016.

While academic achievement has been the focus of school reporting and accountability systems for decades, that may be changing to some degree. With the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, Congress is broadening what it considers success when it comes to judging school quality. The change reflects in part growing recognition that test scores alone do not provide complete information about school quality.

While the act signed into law in December retains an emphasis on academic achievement, it requires states to add a nontraditional measure of success to their accountability systems that was missing from the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which required that schools be judged primarily on the basis of student proficiency in reading and mathematics. A number of new measures of success are available, including measures of student engagement, access to and completion of advanced coursework, and school climate and safety.

One potential new indicator being discussed in some states is a measure of students' "soft skills" or social and emotional learning — competencies such as communication, collaboration and academic tenacity. These abilities help students and adults form healthy working relationships with others, stick with challenging problems and pursue long-term goals. Research has shown that competencies like resilience and persistence matter to students' long-term success. As a result, states might be tempted to include measures of these skills in their accountability systems. For example, a collaborative of eight districts in California called CORE included measures of social and emotional learning in its measure of school quality, basing a school's rating on data gathered from surveys of students (grades 5-12), staff and parents.

The inclusion of these measures has several advantages, including sending a message to students, educators and families that raising test scores isn't enough and that schools have the responsibility to promote other outcomes. However, there are several challenges policymakers should consider before attaching high stakes to these measures.

Despite growing evidence that social and emotional learning is important to college and career success, these skills are largely unmeasured in schools. Many of the assessments used to measure these skills have not yet been widely used, and evidence of their validity is limited. Most existing measures of these skills, including those used by CORE, are based on self-reported surveys, which typically do not work well for accountability because people can be pressured to report in positive ways. When high stakes are involved, even tightly controlled, standardized testing is often gamed, and assessments of social and emotional learning could be manipulated particularly easily.

Another concern is that both teachers and administrators are likely unfamiliar with how to teach social and emotional learning. If they are held accountable for improving student performance they may be likely to "teach to the survey" instead of developing long-term programs and activities that foster the development of these competencies. More effort needs to be devoted to understanding how to develop these skills before educators are held accountable for improving them.

Social and emotional learning has been linked to success later in life. Taking steps to encourage schools to monitor and develop these skills could be of great long-term benefit to students. The Every Student Succeeds Act's inclusion of measures of success beyond test scores also could provide an opportunity for schools to think about how to best teach these nonacademic skills in the classroom. Policymakers should tread carefully, however, in attaching consequences to the results of assessments of social and emotional learning. Instead of relying on accountability systems as a mechanism for promoting these skills, states could incorporate them into state frameworks or encourage schools to add them into local curricula. Assessment of these skills should focus not on accountability but on providing teachers and students with data to help them improve social and emotional learning through instruction.

Laura Hamilton is associate director of RAND Education, Brian Stecher is a senior social scientist and Grace Evans is a legislative analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.