Measuring Academic Skills and ‘Grit’ to Help Identify At-Risk Students

With the help of a grant of nearly $2 million, Excelsior College wants to use analytics to identify at-risk students.

The private nonprofit institution, in Albany, N.Y., was one of 17 recipients of a First in the World Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the college announced on Wednesday. It plans to use the grant money to fund an open-source assessment tool that colleges will eventually be able to use free of charge.

Called the Diagnostic Assessment and Achievement of College Skills, the tool will test students on a range of academic skills, like mathematics, and more-intangible traits, like “grit,” the asset turned buzzword made famous by Angela Duckworth.

Excelsior hopes to use the results of the tests as a form of predictive analytics: When students underperform, the college will be able to see how they scored on the tests. Then it can try to predict which students will underperform in the future.

“Over time we observe what actually happens, and then we apply what we learn to the new students,” said the project’s director, Jason Bryer. “I can’t really say I know what would make a student at risk at this point, but the data will hopefully tell us that.”

While traditional placement examinations are often used to determine whether a student should take remedial courses, Mr. Bryer said, the new tool will offer more than a yes-or-no answer as to whether a student is prepared for college. It will provide comprehensive information on students’ strengths and weaknesses. When they are struggling, it will point them to helpful resources. The most innovative part, said Mr. Bryer, is an attempt to test for soft skills, like perseverance, which he says “are highly predictive of student success.”

The pilot program, scheduled to start in January 2017, will include students at Excelsior and Western Governors University, a competency-based online degree program. Students at both institutions spend a lot of time taking tests, Mr. Bryer said, “so knowing if a student is anxious taking high-stakes assessments would be useful for them and for advisers.”

But how do you measure intangible traits like math anxiety? The tests will be based on existing metrics, he said, like the New York State Regents Exam.

Instead of pushing underperforming students into remediation, the tool will help students learn how they can improve their skills on their own, Mr. Bryer said. For instance, if students are struggling in math, it will direct them to relevant lessons from Khan Academy, which offers free online lectures.

Excelsior is going to try to use open materials, like Khan, rather than resources offered by colleges, like writing centers. That way, Mr. Bryer said, those who aren’t enrolled in college can also use the tool.

“We hope to provide enough resources that motivated students could self-remediate,” he said.

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