New test assesses non-academic readiness

Student success depends on motivation as well as academic preparation. A new ETS test called  SuccessNavigator claims to measure students’ readiness to show up for class, ask question and persevere, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Steven Robbins, director of research innovation at ETS, said the test can be used in tandem with conventional placement exams to find students with remedial needs who have the motivation and other non-academic tools for success in college – a suite of attributes some researchers have dubbed “grit.”

“It makes sense to try it because we know the traditional methods aren’t working,” said Melinda Mechur Karp, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Students take the 30-minute test online at a cost of $5 (to the college). It assesses their commitment, self-management and social support, as well as academic readiness. In addition to generating a report to a counselor, the student gets a “customized action plan” with advice on seeking out tutoring or careering counseling or improving their health and wellness.

City Colleges of Chicago, which is field-testing SuccessNavigator, may use it to identify remedial students who could move quickly to college-level courses, said Rasmus Lynnerup, vice chancellor for strategy and institutional intelligence. The test “allows us to have a personal relationship with students” as soon as they arrive, he said.

Santa Monica College used the test in its student success course, said Brenda Benson, dean of counseling and retention.

Instructors received classroom-level reports after students took the test. While not providing results for individual students, Benson said instructors were able to see how the class stacked up on about 15 measures, like social supports or time management skills. They could then tailor their instruction based on each group of students’ overall needs.

Faculty “found it really useful,” Benson said, adding that “students seem to love it.”

Community colleges, chronically short on support staff, may use the exam to make advising more efficient. I wonder if high schools will be interested as a way to focus students on improving their non-academic readiness for college.

Grit is good, but cognition comes first

Character traits such as “grit” are important, but don’t ignore cognition, writes Mike Rose, a UCLA professor and author of Back To School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education. “Cognition traditionally refers to a wide and rich range of mental processes, from memory and attention, to comprehending and using language, to solving a difficult problem in physics or choreography or a relationship,” he writes in Ed Week. It’s not just reading and math scores or the Armed Forces Qualification Test.

Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed argues for shifting our focus from academic programs to “the development of qualities of character or personality, like perseverance, self-monitoring, and flexibility,” writes Rose. But many of these “character” qualities fall within the “truer, richer notion of cognition.”

 Self-monitoring, for example, has to involve a consideration and analysis of one’s performance and mental state, which is a demanding cognitive activity. Flexibility requires a weighing of options and decisionmaking.

Cognitive and non-cognitive learning are entwined in community college programs Rose observed in fashion and diesel technology.

 As students developed competence, they also became more committed to doing a job well, were better able to monitor and correct their performance, and improved their ability to communicate what they were doing, and help others. You could be, by inclination, the most dogged or communicative person in the world, but if you don’t know what you’re doing with a garment or an engine, your tendencies won’t be realized in a meaningful way in the classroom or the workshop.

Some colleges and universities are trying to measure non-cognitive factors to admit “diamonds in the rough,” reports Inside Higher Ed. But, so far, high school grades are the best predictor of college performance. And it helps to have test scores to account for grade inflation.

Measuring non-cognitive skills is difficult, but not impossible, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham.

New college aims at students with ‘grit’

Grit and graduation will be the focus at Portmont College, a new two-year program for disadvantaged students, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles and the Gates-funded MyCollege Foundation partnered to create the new college,  which is designed for young adults with grit, determination and barriers to success.

The hybrid program, which will combine online and in-person components, was designed for students who have the potential to excel in college, but who lack other things—such as money, strong academic preparation, or a flexible schedule—that correlate with postsecondary success. Perhaps they’re first-generation students with so-so high-school grades, or working adults who are caring for elderly parents, or nonnative English speakers who struggled on the SAT.

Portman’s president, Srikant Vasan, defines grit as “being able to get over obstacles as they appear in your path, to stand up when you’ve been punched down, to set a long-term vision and a goal for yourself, and be able to keep those in mind.” He hopes Portman’s focus on non-cognitive skills will “bridge the achievement gap.”

Students will need a high-school degree or GED and at least a 10th-grade proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics. They’ll start with a free online Launch Pad course. Over three weeks, college officials will evaluate students’ non-cognitive skills and behaviors.

In the second phase (called “Ignition”), admitted students would participate in an in-person experiential-learning program. They would meet with a success coach and the peers who would form their “support community.” Later, during their first two academic terms, students would take two for-credit courses meant to reinforce what they’ve learned and provide continuing support.

Those courses would emphasize “core capabilities” associated with success in the workplace, such as critical thinking, communications, problem solving, and teamwork. . . .  Portmont will use academic and “behavioral” data to tailor student-specific interventions throughout each semester.

Portmont College at St. Mary’s will start in Denver this December, offering associate degrees in  business administration, computer science, liberal arts, and pre-health science. It will cost $5,240 per year.

“Academic confidence” is critical for community college students, concludes a new Community College Research Center study, which describes “ways to structure classroom and other on-campus environments to create opportunities for students to experience earned success and ultimately enhance their commitment to academic pursuits.”

College readiness includes ‘grit’

Only 9 percent of low-income students complete a bachelor’s degree by age 24. American RadioWorks reporter Emily Hanford looks at the importance of Grit, Luck and Money in determining who persists to a degree.

Grit is as important as intelligence in determining success, believes Angela Lee Duckworth, a Penn psychology professor who’s analyzing the role of grit in college completion in a Gates-funded study.

She defines grit as “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.” In a paper, she writes that “the gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.”

Grit can be learned, Duckworth believes.

It takes more grit to earn an associate’s degree than a bachelor’s, her research shows. “If you’re going to get through a two-year college where the attrition rate is 50 or maybe even 75 percent, maybe you do need more grit to surmount all those obstacles,” says Duckworth.

Houston’s YES Prep, a high-performing charter school for low-income minority students, is trying to help first-generation college students cope with challenges and persist to a degree. Even academically strong students have trouble in college, reports Hanford.

. . . at YES, where most of the students are from poor families, close to 70 percent of students score as well on the SAT as students from middle-income families, and they score significantly better than other minority students in America.

Perhaps the most telling statistic is this: Less than 10 percent of YES Prep alumni take remedial classes when they get to college. Nationally, as many as 60 percent of incoming college students have to take some sort of remedial class.

. . .  Based on academic preparation alone, one could reasonably expect that 80 or 90 percent of the students would graduate from college.

But that didn’t happen.

Nearly all YES Prep graduates go to college, usually to four-year institutions. Only 40 percent complete a college degree in four years; 28 percent drop out and the rest are still trying to finish.

YES Prep gives students a lot of support to get them ready for college — maybe too much. In college, the support system is gone. Often their parents can’t help.

The school has hired two counselors to work with alumni and created partnerships with several private colleges that can provide counseling and support to first-generation college students.

Among Hanford’s profiles of persistence is Paul Longoria, a 2007 YES graduate, who enrolled in community college when his first-choice college, Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, turned him down. YES Prep counselors were worried.

According to the data YES has on how its students do at various kinds of colleges, students who go to community colleges have the hardest time graduating. Only a handful of YES students start at community colleges, but about 13 percent who start at a four-year school end up transferring to a community college. Less than 10 percent of those who transfer to community colleges earn an associate’s degree, according to YES Prep data. Less than 5 percent end up earning a bachelor’s.

Ignoring his counselors’ advice, Longoria went to San Jacinto Community College in Houston for one year, then transferred to Sam Houston State.  Despite studying a “transfer sheet” to find the right community college courses, he learned many of his credits wouldn’t transfer.

“You almost feel cheated,” he says. “I put in the time, I put in the effort, I surely put in the money. And you’re telling me that it didn’t matter.”

He retook courses and began a criminal justice major. After two years, he switched to  kinesiology and transferred to the University of Houston, which had a strong program. Once again he had to repeat some classes, costing him another year in college. He expects to earn his bachelor’s degree in December 2013, more than six years after he completed high school.