Do they love to learn?

Why our standardized exams should measure student attitude.

Editorial By Ben
Great teachers inspire their students.  They show them the beauty of a subject and ignite within them a burning desire to learn.
The effect of such a teacher reaches far beyond his or her classroom. Our lives are shaped by these people because, once the will to learn is burning bright within us, it continues without the catalytic spark of its creator.
And yet, when we use standardized exams to measure our students, our classrooms, and our education system, we ignore attitude.  The teacher that inspired a lifelong passion for learning is little acknowledged for his or her labor, the fruits of which are spread across the remainder of the student's lifetime.
Why is this? Why do we ignore this fundamental outcome that aligns so closely with our ideal of great teaching?

Perhaps we cannot measure attitude?

At this point, you are probably thinking that we don't measure attitude for a good reason. Several objections come to mind:
  • Perhaps attitude cannot be measured reliably by a multiple choice survey?
  • Perhaps our intuition is wrong -- ability has little to do with attitude?
  • Perhaps measuring attitude is too difficult and time consuming?

Except that we already have.

I could address these plausible objections one by one using a combination of research and reasonable arguments. Fortunately, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has made my job easy.
In 2012, PISA administered an international Mathematics exam to half a million 15-year-olds around the world. This exam included a 30-minute survey on student attitudes. They have also been gracious enough to provide an extremely good write up of their results.
This quick assessment of attitude was highly informative.  For example, PISA measured students’ math anxiety by asking how much they agree or disagree with statements like, “I get very nervous doing mathematics problems.”  A student who was among the top 15% most anxious math students was likely to perform more than one full grade level below his or her peers with average math anxiety.  
Many attitudes had similar correlations with student success (see table 1).

Example Question
Difference in performance (grade level)
Sense of belonging
I feel like an outsider at school.
I give up easily.
Openness to problem solving
I am quick to understand things.
Perceived control of success
Whether or not I do well in mathematics is completely up to me.
Intrinsic motivation to learn
I do mathematics because I enjoy it.
Extrinsic motivation to learn
I will learn many things in mathematics that will help me get a job.
I can understanding graphs presented in newspapers.
I learn mathematics quickly.
I get very nervous doing mathematics problems.
Table 1 - How math attitudes related to math aptitude
Students taking the PISA exam were asked several attitude questions in each of the above categories. A one standard deviation difference in their responses corresponded to the following grade level change in performance. One grade level corresponds to one typical year of improvement. An example of each type of question is provided.  (summarized from data presented in the pisa report)

Perhaps aptitude already tells us everything we need to know?

Okay, so attitude can be quickly measured and it correlates to aptitude.  But if we are going to include it on our standardized exams, it must provide additional value.  Perhaps aptitude already tells us everything we need to know?

Except that attitude precedes aptitude.

Intuitively we know that changes in attitude regularly precede changes in aptitude.  A student gets inspired, works hard at math, and then becomes better at math.
At PERTS, I work with a group that delivers growth mindset interventions.  These interventions are designed to convince students that the brain is like a muscle: it grows stronger with effort.  We work hard to measure the effect of these interventions both on attitude and aptitude.  The pattern that we see is reliable.  First, students become convinced that the brain is like a muscle, and then their grades go up.  We can predict the long term success of a student earlier and better if we measure their changes in attitude.
Moreover, there is solid evidence that GPA predicts college success better than standardized exam scores (using both is best of all).  Many researchers believe that this is because GPA measures 'non-cognative factors', things like attitude and behavior. Additional evidence that our standardized exams would be more powerful instruments if they measured attitude too.
However, more work in this area is needed.  We know that attitude precedes aptitude, but we don’t know by how much or how precisely we could detect the effect.  How much better would our long term predictions of success become if we measured student attitudes?  How much better could we assess the impact of teachers and teaching methodologies?  The answers to these questions requires a study on the scale of the PISA exam; one that follows a group of students over an extended time period.

Ok, I'm convinced. What can I do to help?

PISA's work is a great start, and there are others too. But there is still a lot of work to do as a society to in order to get attitude assessment included as a basic part of our standardized education assessment.
  • Tell your friends - Our education system is ultimately beholden to us. If we as a collective think that measuring student attitude is a priority, then it will become a reality.
  • Measure your students - If you are an educator, measure your student's attitudes and use these measurements to evaluate your impact.  PERTS developed an assessment that can be done online or you can adapt the PISA pencil and paper assessment.
  • Help us quantify the effect of attitude on aptitude - If you help to administer education to large groups of students you could help the most by measuring student attitudes over time.  If someone can prove that measurable changes in attitude regularly precede and predict meaningful changes in aptitude, then the case for measuring attitude will be made much stronger.

And what will the future look like?

Imagine a world where 'teaching to the test' means inspiring your students, igniting within them a burning desire to learn that contributes to happiness and success throughout their entire lives.  This world can be ours if we can learn how to test what matters most.

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