What is the definition of a successful student?

Is it a student who always comes to class prepared, ready with her homework and materials for the day? A student who scores in the top percentile on a standardized test? A student who is eager to learn and grow in order to help her community? A student who is a leader and a collaborator?

There is no one way to quantify student success. And yet, we often assess student achievement based on their performance on standardized tests. While such tests do offer some insights into student learning and teacher practice, research has shown they may not be the best predictors of important long-term education outcomes.

Research by Mindset Scholar Matt Kraft, an assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University, examines how teachers influence a broad range of cognitive and other factors not captured on state standardized tests. In a new article forthcoming in the Journal of Human Resources, he explores whether teachers who improve students’ scores on standardized tests, which are often used to assess teacher quality, also help facilitate students’ growth in other domains, including complex reasoning, effort, and learning mindsets.

Matt’s research draws on data from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project. The dataset includes over 4,000 4th and 5th grade students and over 200 of their classroom teachers across six large school districts.

To measure students’ academic performance, Matt analyzed not only their standardized test scores, but also their performance on open-ended tasks. The tasks—the Balanced Assessment in Mathematics and the Stanford Achievement Test 9 Open-ended Reading Assessment—require students to respond to complex problems and to justify their reasoning. Matt also looked at students’ levels of effort, grit, and growth mindset (as self-reported in a student survey).

Here are Matt’s primary findings:

  • Teachers have large effects on a wide range of students’ cognitive and social-emotional skills.
  • Teachers who develop students’ basic numeracy skills are also likely to be developing their ability to solve more complex mathematical tasks.
  • Teachers’ ability to raise students’ basic literacy skills is only weakly related to their ability to raise their ability to reason about and respond to complex text.
  • Among teachers, there is little relationship between their effects on student achievement and their effects on students’ level of effort, grit, or growth mindset
  • The performance measures used in current teacher evaluation systems do not capture the effects teachers have on students’ complex cognitive skills and social-emotional competencies.

These findings suggest that teachers who are relatively effective in improving students’ performance on standardized tests may not excel to the same extent at developing other predictors of student success, such as adoption of a growth mindset, or performance on complex academic tasks that require deep conceptual understanding, especially in English Language Arts.

Current teacher accountability, evaluation, and reporting systems vary in the extent to which they incentivize a focus on helping students develop complex problem-solving skills and a broader array of attitudes, beliefs, and competencies. This study reinforces earlier research by other scholars that demonstrated the complexity of measuring how teachers influence different types of student performance. Future research should deepen our understanding of how teachers affect a more comprehensive vision of student success and the ways in which teachers can be effectively trained to support student growth across a broad array of beliefs, skills, and competencies.

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