Measuring Academic and Nonacademic Skills Equally Important

A new report commissioned by NWEA revealed that parents, teachers and school leaders agree about the importance of measuring students' soft skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork and view them as equally important as academic skills. However, which skills to teach and who should have the primary role in doing so is an area where the roles disagreed. Also, a slight majority of parents said they believe their child is receiving a better education than the one they received. NWEA is a nonprofit that develops assessment solutions for education agencies around the world.

This particular survey has been done every two years since 2012. The newest one was conducted by pollster Gallup, among a demographically representative sampling of 4,000 parents, teachers, principals and superintendents.

A traditional emphasis on K–12 assessment perceptions was expanded this year to examine what skills people think students need and how to gather evidence of that learning.

"Assessing Soft Skills: Are We Preparing Students for Successful Futures?" shared several major findings.

A biggie was that everybody — more than eight in 10 respondents — agreed, it's "equally important to assess both academic and nonacademic skills." Yet, the latter aren't being measured effectively; just one in 10 teachers reported that the assessments they do gauge those nonacademic skills "very well."

While most survey participants agreed that schools need to measure for nonacademic skills, they didn't concur that schools should be teaching them. Many respondents, according to the report, told Gallup those skills were best learned at home. Among the skills mentioned by respondents were those involving character development, such as work ethic and self-confidence; interpersonal or social skills, such as collaboration, communication and active listening; and functional life skills, such as managing personal finances, managing time or knowing how to hunt for a job.

Answers varied by background — race, education level and income level. For example, higher shares of parents and teachers of color indicated they believed that it was very important for schools to measure how well students could apply what they learned in school to real-world situations compared to white parents and teachers. The same was true across the board for problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills, the ability to view issues from different perspectives and the ability to work with others.

While most parents tended to believe that the amount of time spent at school on assessments was just right or even too little, teachers and administrators reported that too much time was dedicated to that kind of activity. Also, a disconnect emerged regarding the amount of time spent communicating assessment results to parents. While a majority of teachers said they spend just the right amount of time (52 percent), only 44 percent of parents agreed.

Overall, parents expressed optimism about their children's education. More than half of parents (52 percent) said their child was receiving a better education than they did, although it varied by grade level. Those with children in grades 9–12 were more likely than parents with children in grades 5–8 to say so, 56 percent compared to 47 percent. Six in 10 parents (61 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that their child was learning the essential skills in school that would make him or her successful in the future.

Based on the findings, NWEA offered three recommendations:

  • First, that state and local education leaders and policymakers "work together to refine state assessment systems to address and measure the range of academic and nonacademic skills students will need for successful futures";
  • Second, that additional research take place to "advance our understanding of the importance of nonacademic skill development and assessment among different communities, schools and families; and
  • Third, that districts dig in to make sure families are getting "meaningful feedback" about their students' learning.

"When I read this report, I see opportunity," wrote Chris Minnich, NWEA CEO, in a forward. "Parent optimism about assessments and education is encouraging. But where I see the most opportunity is in truly measuring what matters and ensuring that every assessment that exists today or is being created for tomorrow is relevant to student learning."

The report is openly available on the NWEA website.

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