Forum For Thought

ESSA’s “Non-Academic” Indicator: What Are We Talking About?

Jennifer Brown Lerner, Deputy Director

Jennifer Brown Lerner,    Deputy Director

As I have mentioned in the past, I think our language in the education sector matters.  So, I feel like it is time to get out my “language police” whistle and blow it again.

Unless you have been sticking your head in the sand, you have probably engaged in a conversation around ESSA’s fifth indicator. Yet, I know there are few of you lucky enough to spend the past few months at the beach, so here’s a quick primer on ESSA’s fifth indicator. It is a non-academic measure to be weighed less than the four required academic indicators in the accountability systems which states are required to develop to comply with the law.  The language in the legislation names student engagement; educator engagement; access to and completion of advanced coursework; postsecondary readiness; school climate and safety as possible categories from which measures might be selected, but it clearly specifies that states are not limited to them.  [Want to learn more, read this great Ed Week blog.]

With the potential for other measures to be considered as ESSA’s fifth indicator, the policy wonks are going nuts about the possibility of measuring non-academic skills, abilities, and dispositions which research shown to demonstrate some level of improvement in student achievement and outcomes.  Yet, we are all over the place in terms of what we call them.  Here are just a few:

  • CASEL’s definition claims that “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
  • Character Education Partnership notes that “character education includes and complements a broad range of educational approaches such as whole child education, service learning, social-emotional learning, and civic education. All share a commitment to helping young people become responsible, caring, and contributing citizens.”
  • Angela Duckworth defines “grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.”
  • The U.S. Department of Education defines “employability skills across three broad categories: Applied Knowledge, the thoughtful integration of academic knowledge and technical skills, put to practical use in the workplace; Effective Relationships, the interpersonal skills and personal qualities that enable individuals to interact effectively with clients, coworkers, and supervisors; and Workplace Skills; the analytical and organizational skills and understandings that employees need to successfully perform work tasks.”

AYPF has long stated that college and career readiness is more than academic mastery, but the reality of asking states to define, measure, and hold schools accountable beyond academic mastery is opening the floodgates for many, many questions; chief among these questions is “are we all talking about that same thing?”

While ESSA is clear on the inclusion of a non-academic indicator, it allows states the flexibility to choose whatever indicator and related measurement tool they best see fit.  Hence I think it is time to pull out my “language police whistle” and here are just a few reasons I am blowing it:

  1. The possibility of what could be considered a non-academic indicator is quite broad, so let’s be clear about EXACTLY what we are talking about
  2. In defining a non-academic indicator, let’s use clear language and terms that can be linked to measurable skills
  3. If we are going to measure any of these skills, abilities, and dispositions as the non-academic indicator, then let’s make sure we actually can and should be measuring them effectively and for the purpose of school and district-level accountability.

As states are working to develop their accountability systems and many national organizations are offering their thoughts and assistance to states, I expect our conversations to continue, but I hope we’ll be more cognizant of our language and its use even if we are talking about “anything but soft skills.”

The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF’s events and policy reports are made possible by the support of a consortium of philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.

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