News and Tribune

July 22, 2013

True grit: principal champions new assessment

By MAUREEN HAYDEN
CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS —

If you have a child in an Indiana school, you may think the last thing we need is another standardized test, given the anxiety the state’s multiple assessment tests already create for students and the noisy political debate they generate in the Statehouse.

But high school principal Jegga Rent thinks there may be some value to adding new kind of assessment: one that measures a student’s grit.

Rent heads the Monument Lighthouse College Prep Academy, a charter high school in Indianapolis that serves low-income students at high risk for failure. His big goal is to those kids into college and out of poverty. 

Rent is an avid proponent of an arts-infused curriculum — using music to help teach math, for example — which makes learning more fun and gratifying for students. But he also knows that learning can be daunting and discouraging, especially for chronically low-performing students.

This coming school year, in addition to taking their required academic assessment tests, the students at Monument will also be taking the Grit Scale test.

It’s a 12-question test developed by Angela Lee Duckworth, a former math teacher and now charter school consultant who argues that educators and parents need to be as concerned about a student’s character development as their academic achievement.

Duckworth developed the Grit Scale while doing research on student success. She found, for example, that measures of self-control were more reliable predictor of students’ grade-point averages than their I.Q.’s. 

The test has been described as “deceptively simple” since it only takes a few minutes to complete. Test-takers are asked to rate themselves on just 12 questions, ranging from “I finish whatever I begin” to “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.”

One of the places where Duckworth practiced the test was the United States Military Academy at West Point, where 1,200 freshman cadets took it. Of all the tests the cadets took that year, including grueling physical tests, it was the Grit Scale test that was the most accurate predictor of which cadets persisted and which ones dropped out.

In still another study, of Ivy League college students, Duckworth found the grittiest students, not the smartest ones, had the highest GPAs.

Rent wants to use the Grit Scale test in the way that all good assessment tests should be: as a way to measure where students are, so you can help them get to where they need to be. It means tutoring a kid in perseverance becomes as important as a tutoring a kid in math.

Here’s another measure that Rent wants to add this year at his school. In addition tracking a student’s GPA — the grade-point average — Rent wants to start tracking a student’s CPA: a character-point average.

The CPA is still a work in progress, Rent said, but initially it will be based on a student’s attendance and tardiness record, the number of disciplinary referrals from teachers, and the student’s GPA.

These aren’t novel ideas. They’re already being implemented by some charter high schools in other states, tracking progress of their graduates who are at-risk for dropping out of college. Guess what they found out? The students who stayed in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically in high school; they were the ones who had persistence, optimism, and social intelligence. They may have failed a test or even a course, but they knew how to bounce back.

They had character and grit. 

— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com