Book Club: The Test That Reveals How Much Kids Care About School

January 31, 2014 6:00 a.m.

In the mid-1970s, a small number of economists and sociologists started noticing that academic skills were not all important. It sounded obvious, but in the rush to count and compare IQ and reading scores, this simple truth was easily forgotten. Over the next three decades, more and more studies showed that when it came to predicting which kids grew up to be thriving adults—who succeeded in life and in their jobs—cognitive abilities only went so far.

Something else mattered just as much, and sometimes more, to kids’ life chances. This other dark matter had more to do with attitude than the ability to solve a calculus problem. In one study of U.S. eighth graders, for example, the best predictor of academic performance was not the children’s IQ scores—but their self-discipline.

Mastery of math never made anyone get to work on time, finish a thesis, or use a condom. No, those skill sets had more to do with motivation, empathy, self-control, and persistence. These were core habits, workhorse traits sometimes summed up by the old-fashioned word character.

The problem with the word character was that it sounded like something you couldn’t change. But these same researchers discovered something wonderful: Character was malleable, more malleable in fact than IQ. Character could change dramatically and relatively quickly — for better and for worse — from place to place and time to time.

So it was fair to assume that different communities and cultures did more — or less — to promote these traits in their children.

Caring about school was not the most important trait in a human being, to state the obvious. But, around the globe, this particular form of drive had begun to matter more than ever before, at least economically speaking.The research was still a long way off from identifying all the traits that mattered in young people’s lives, but could drive be measured between countries? And could drive be cultivated in places that needed more of it?

Few people had tried to find out. Surveys tended to ask kids to describe their own motivation and attitude, which made it impossible to separate their answers from their own cultural biases. A student in Korea who said he didn’t work hard had a very different understanding of hard than a typical student in the United Kingdom or Italy.

In 2002, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania had an idea. They thought they might be able to measure students’ persistence and motivation by looking not at their answers to international tests, but at how thoroughly students answered the surveys included with those tests.

After the test portion of Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and other international exams, students typically filled out surveys about their families and other life circumstances. There were no right answers for the questions on the surveys. In fact, the professors, Erling Boe, Robert Boruch, and a young graduate student, Henry May, weren’t even interested in the answers. They wanted to track students’ diligence in filling out the forms. So, they studied the survey attached to a 1995 test taken by kids of different ages in more than forty countries (called the “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study”).

The researchers encountered several surprises very quickly. First, students around the world were surprisingly compliant. The vast majority dutifully filled out most answers, even though the survey had no impact on their lives.The lowest response rate for any country was 90 percent.There was some variation from within a given country,but the variation didn’t seem to reveal much about the students.

Between countries, though, the differences in diligence mattered — a lot. In fact, this difference turned out to be the single best predictor of how countries performed on the actual substantive portion of the test.

This simple measure — the thoroughness with which students answered the survey — was more predictive of countries’ scores than socio-economic status or class size or any other factor that had been studied.

How could this be? When May repeated the analysis with the 2009 PISA data, he found the same dynamic: Half the variation between countries’ scores on the PISA math test could be explained by how much of the personal questionnaire students filled out on average in a given country.

In the United States, participants answered 96 percent of the survey questions on average, which seemed very respectable. Yet the U.S. still ranked thirty-third in conscientiousness. Korea ranked fourth. Finland ranked sixth. Kids there answered 98 percent of the questions. Seems virtually the same, right? But small differences in average response rates predicted large differences in academic performance on the same test.

Kids in Finland and Korea answered more of the demographic survey than those in the United States, France, Denmark, or Brazil. The causes of this pattern remain a mystery. May wondered if PISA and other international exams were measuring not skills but compliance; some countries had cultures in which kids just took all tests, and authority figures, more seriously. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine that those countries included Japan, Korea, and other top PISA scorers. Perhaps that’s why those kids answered the survey more thoroughly and did better on the academic questions, too. Those kids were just rule-abiding conformists. Other countries, meanwhile, valued individualism more than compliance. Perhaps those kids simply did not feel compelled to take the survey seriously.

Then why did U.S. students do much better on the reading portion of the test, and so poorly on the math portion? If American kids just didn’t care about tests or authority figures, generally speaking, then they would presumably do equally poorly on all tests. Likewise, we probably wouldn’t see countries like Poland rocket up through the rankings in very short periods of time. It was hard to imagine that Poland had cultivated a culture of conformism in the course of three to nine years.

No one knows the answer for sure, but it’s possible that the diligence kids showed in answering the survey reflected their diligence in general. In other words, maybe some kids had learned to finish what they started in school: to persist even when something held no particular gratification. The opposite was also true. Some kids had not learned to persist, and persistence was not valued as much in their school or in their societies at large.

Conscientiousness on a survey seemed like a trifling matter. In life, it was a big deal. Conscientiousness—a tendency to be responsible, hardworking, and organized—mattered at every point in the human life cycle. It even predicted how long people lived—with more accuracy than intelligence or background.

The survey results provided some clues, not all of them obvious. The countries with kids who took the survey most seriously were not necessarily places with the richest kids; affluence does not necessarily lead to persistence, as we all know. In fact, the country with the highest response rate on the survey had nearly the same level of child poverty as that of the United States.

That country was Poland.

Adapted from the book The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley. Excerpted by arrangement from Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2013.

Amanda Ripley is a journalist and the author of The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way and an Emerson Senior Fellow in Washington, D.C.

“Stock Photo: Group Of Students Takes The Test In Class” on Shutterstock

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