The Character Assessment Initiative (Charassein)

Under the direction of my colleague, Gema Zamarro, the Department of Education Reform is launching the Character Assessment Initiative, or Charassein.  Charassein (χαράσσειν) means to engrave, scratch, or etch and is the Greek root for the word character.  The idea of the initiative is to define, develop, and validate measures of what have often been called non-cognitive skills, but we think are more accurately described as character traits.  Once we have improved our understanding and ability to measure these traits, we will also be interested in evaluating potential interventions for shaping or altering them.  You should check out the Charassein web site to learn more about what we have and will be doing.

In some previous posts I’ve mentioned the incredibly innovative paper by Collin Hitt, Julie Trivitt, and Albert Cheng that looks at student non-response on surveys (leaving answers blank or saying “don’t know”) as a proxy for conscientiousness or effort.  They find that non-response is predictive in six different national longitudinal data sets of later life outcomes for students, including attainment, employment, and earnings, even after controlling for other relevant factors including cognitive ability.  That paper is part of our Character Assessment Initiative and I am pleased to report that it is moving closer to publication.  It received a positive R&R from a leading journal and, after the necessary revisions, is back under review.  You can find the updated paper here.

If you like that paper, you’ll love a new paper by Albert Cheng in which he looks at how teachers may affect student conscientiousness and later life outcomes.  Albert examines how teacher non-response on surveys influences student non-response.  Albert uses the Longitudinal Study of American Youth and confirms that student non-response on surveys is predictive of later life outcomes.  In fact, he shows that student non-response on surveys in grades 7-9 is more strongly predictive of graduating high school and completing a bachelors degree than math and science standardized test results. Albert then goes on to show that non-response on surveys administered to teachers is predictive of the non-response of their students.  Using a student fixed-effects model, he shows that student non-response tends to go up when they have a teacher who is more non-responsive on his/her surveys and tends to go down when students have teachers who are more responsive on surveys.  If we understand non-response as a proxy for conscientiousness or effort, then Albert has found that students become more conscientious when they have teachers who are more conscientious and less conscientious when they have teachers who are less conscientious.

This is an amazing breakthrough in character (or non-cog) research.  Albert demonstrates that teacher character influences student character and that student character is predictive of later life outcomes.  Check out his new paper and the updated version of the Hitt, Trivitt, and Cheng paper.  And for folks who think this is as cool as I do, keep in mind that both Collin and Albert will be hitting the job market in a year or two.

– Jay P. Greene

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