When students take tests and score at the “basic” level, we tend to assume that—if the test is a good one—this means they’ve attained a relatively low level of skill, short of proficiency and far from mastery of the material.
But two recent studies have used clever methodologies to complicate this picture. They’ve found that, although assessments gauge students’ level of “cognitive skills”—the knowledge of the material and ability to perform academic tasks that assessments are meant to assess—they also capture an important factor that mediates between a student’s skills and the eventual score: effort on the test.
Student effort is not equal in all contexts, meaning it contributes to differences in test scores for different countries (or states, districts, schools, and students). These studies have focused on the consequences of varying effort for making international comparisons, but the implications of their conclusions are wide-ranging, both for testing and for education policy more broadly.
The studies’ methodologies are clever in how they separate the effects of cognitive and non-cognitive skills, like effort and persistence.
In one, researchers at the University of Arkansas used data from the PISA international assessment to estimate the extent to which scores...