What "grit" can do for test scores: a Michigan classroom experiment

May 6, 2014

heritage exploratory academy kids and project
Credit Heritage Exploratory Academy

We've written here about some new thinking on "grit" and how to set a kid up to have enough to make a difference in their future success. 

We've also done a lot of writing on standardized testing, what it indicates and what it doesn't.

Yesterday I was in a classroom where these two strains of our reporting came together. I was in Josh Nichols' classroom in Stockbridge when I asked about a bunch of numbers written in the corner of a whiteboard. It was a list of letters like "NWEA" followed by numbers like "221." It was a list of student assessments and scores.

Nichols is a fifth-grade teacher in an educational experiment called the Heritage Elementary Exploratory Academy. The academy takes up one busy and tool-filled hallway of the school. Kids from third, fourth and fifth grade do project-based learning all day with three teachers. The students do things like build underwater robots,  present reports using life-size models of historical figures and collect data on salmon spawn growing in a huge tank.

It's a unique learning environment now in its second and perhaps last, year.

All of the schools in the Stockbridge district are being reconfigured because of a shrinking population and tight funding. One of the side effects of all the changes is that the academy in its current form is not likely to be back next year. Instead, elements of the project-based learning approach might be sprinkled throughout the entire building. 

But back to those test scores. Nichols told me he keeps those numbers up there to show his students what the targets are for these tests, the score the test companies say a typical fifth-grader should achieve. Nichols says he doesn't talk about the tests much more than that. But his students know he expects them to do better than those averages on the board, because he thinks they have the ability. So far, it looks like he's right. 

Nichols and building principal Jim Kelly are still analyzing the test score data, but at first glance, it looks like the students in the academy outperformed the students in the rest of the school on the MEAP in all subjects, and by quite a bit. Stockbridge students are performing at right about the state average on the MEAP. Mr. Nichols' students' scores may be well above those numbers.

Nichols and Kelly are looking for an answer to why this may have happened. He told me he knew it wasn't about him, that he's no better a teacher than those in the rest of the school. It also wasn't about who was in his class; the students are different from the rest of the school only in that they are enrolled in the Academy. 

So Nichols looked for an answer in something he noticed while his students were taking the MEAP this year: Most of his students were still working on the test right up until time ran out.

What that said to Nichols was that his students were trying again and going back to questions that were difficult for them.

Nichols and building principal Jim Kelly have been looking at the test data to see if time spent has something to do with high performance. What Nichols thinks is that the learning environment in the academy teaches persistence.

Nichols says kids fail often when they are working on their projects. An underwater robot won't turn on, for example. The plants in the garden won't grow or a hovercraft won't fly. When faced with these challenges, the kids in the Academy have been taught to look for an answer to why something didn't work and readjust. It might be a failure, but it's not a big deal. In fact, it's to be expected.

Nichols thinks this is what helped his kids on the MEAP. He thinks they saw a question that they didn't know the answer to but they didn't skip over it. They worked on the question by eliminating answers, comparing it to other questions and going back to it for a second look. These students haven't been taught these test-taking skills. They picked them up from the learning environment in the academy. 

Essentially, the kids in the academy are developing "grit." They are learning failure won't crush them and they are moving on quickly to the next challenge. As a side effect, they're developing good test-taking skills. 

Nichols says with the future of the Academy he's put so much of himself into uncertain, he's trying to approach it like these students. He's trying to see it not as failure, but as a challenge.