Just when you think American education can’t get any nuttier, along comes another crazy idea.

 

The New York Times today reports on the project underway in California to test “joy and grit” in the classroom. It is only a pilot for what soon will be a national and international program to test soft skills. Think of the data! Parents will soon have data points about their children’s grit. Think of the data-based decision making!

 

Angela Duckworth, whose work in social-emotional learning has promoted the importance of “grit” (along with Paul Tough’s book “How Children Succeed”), resigned from the committee overseeing the project.

 

“I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,” said Angela Duckworth, the MacArthur fellow who has done more than anyone to popularize social-emotional learning, making “grit” — the title of her book to be released in May — a buzzword in schools.

 

She resigned from the board of the group overseeing the California project, saying she could not support using the tests to evaluate school performance. Last spring, after attending a White House meeting on measuring social-emotional skills, she and a colleague wrote a paper warning that there were no reliable ways to do so. “Our working title was all measures suck, and they all suck in their own way,” she said.

 

And there is little agreement on what skills matter: Self-control? Empathy? Perseverance? Joy?

 

“There are so many ways to do this wrong,” said Camille A. Farrington, a researcher at the University of Chicago who is working with a network of schools across the country to measure the development of social-emotional skills. “In education, we have a great track record of finding the wrong way to do stuff.”

 

Schools began emphasizing social-emotional learning around 2011, after an analysis of 213 school-based programs teaching such skills found that they improved academic achievement by 11 percentile points. A book extolling efforts to teach social-emotional skills in schools such as the KIPP charter network and Horace Mann in New York, “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough, appeared the next year.

 

Argument still rages about whether schools can or should emphasize these skills. Critics say the approach risks blaming the victim — if only students had more resilience, they could rise above generational poverty and neglected schools — and excuses uninspired teaching by telling students it is on them to develop “zest,” or enthusiasm. Groups that spent decades urging the country toward higher academic standards worry about returning to empty talk of self-esteem, accepting low achievement as long as students feel good.

 

 

But teaching social-emotional skills is often seen as a way to move away from a narrow focus on test scores, and to consider instead the whole child. It may seem contradictory, then, to test for those skills. In education, however, the adage is “what’s measured gets treasured”; states give schools money to teach the subjects on which they will be judged.

 

Next year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test of students in grades four, eight and 12 that is often referred to as the nation’s report card, will include questions about students’ social-emotional skills. A well-known international test, PISA, is moving toward the same.

 

The biggest concern about testing for social-emotional skills is that it typically relies on surveys asking students to evaluate recent behaviors or mind-sets, like how many days they remembered their homework, or if they consider themselves hard workers. This makes the testing highly susceptible to fakery and subjectivity. In their paper published in May, Dr. Duckworth and David Yeager argued that even if students do not fake their answers, the tests provide incentive for “superficial parroting” rather than real changes in mind-set.

 

But Martin West, a supporter of school choice and high-stakes testing, defended the value of testing soft skills.

 

Pearson and the other giants of the testing industry must be delighted. More tests!