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It’s Official: The Feds Will Collect Psycho-Social Data On Your Child


Every year, hundreds of thousands of U.S. students take the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), the federally authorized test known as the “nation’s report card.” Education Week reported recently that, beginning in 2017, NAEP will ask “background questions” designed to gauge each student’s level of “motivation, mindset, and grit.” It’s not enough for the federal government to keep tabs on whether your child knows the material he’s been taught. Instead, it wants to peer inside his mind and critique his personality to see if he has the “noncognitive skills” government thinks he should.

As described by the Educational Testing Service at a conference of the Association for Psychological Science, two of the categories on the NAEP background survey will be labeled “grit” and “desire for learning.” Questions in these categories will be presented to all test-takers. Specific subject areas may include additional questions about other “noncognitive factors” such as “self-efficacy” and “personal achievement goals.”

Almost any parent would read this and wonder why his child’s mindsets and personal goals are any of the government’s business. Indeed, there is serious doubt whether NAEP even has the statutory authority to delve into such matters. The federal statute authorizing NAEP requires that the assessment “objectively measure academic achievement, knowledge, and skills” and that the tests “do not evaluate or assess personal or family beliefs and attitudes . . . .” The statute further requires that NAEP “only collect information that is directly related to the appraisal of academic achievement . . . .”

Presumably NAEP bureaucrats would argue that the background questions aren’t part of the assessment itself, so don’t violate the prohibition against assessing attitudes. Even so, is the non-cognitive information these questions collect “directly related to the appraisal of academic achievement”? Only in the sense that every aspect of one’s personality might theoretically affect one’s academic performance. If we take that broad a view, there is no limit to what NAEP can ask about.

Do you find yourself getting frustrated when you study? Does poor academic performance make your parents angry with you? Do you have problems at home that might affect your schoolwork? We’re here to help.

Now Schools Are Responsible for Kids’ Feelings

In any event, it’s no surprise that a federal education program is moving beyond assessing academic knowledge and into the realm of attitudes, mindsets, and dispositions. For years now, the federal government has openly advocated teaching and measuring the “appropriate” (that is, government-approved) mindsets for students. The concept is known as “social/emotional learning,” or SEL.

Do we really want the government determining what types of attitudes and mindsets are necessary to be a ‘good citizen and worker’?

Where did this concept come from? The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) cites research arguing that education should focus on non-cognitive development as well as academic knowledge. CASEL, the major player in this arena, has identified five “SEL domains” (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making skills) and advocates that schools take responsibility for developing these traits in students from preschool through grade 12.

The first objection that leaps to mind is that, for the most part, school personnel are not qualified to plumb the depths of a child’s psyche. As warned by clinical psychologist Gary Thompson, placing this type of responsibility on largely untrained personnel is playing with fire. And since the federal government is actively relaxing the privacy restrictions applicable to student data, the chances of this sensitive information getting into the wrong hands are enormous.

The more fundamental issue, though, is who should be responsible for helping instill these personality traits: schools (i.e., government) or families? Each of these non-cognitive domains is nebulous, and the desirability of a particular outcome will vary from individual to individual. For example, a child’s parents might hold a different view about what types of “social awareness” are appropriate, compared to the government’s desire to sensitize children to “global problems” such as climate change. Or the government might value the “relationship skill” of acquiescing to the consensus of the group, instead of the parents’ preference for developing the backbone to stand up for the right and true in the face of contrary pressure.

In short, the dangers of transferring this type of child development from parents to the government are mind-boggling. Do we really want the government determining what types of attitudes and mindsets are necessary to be a “good citizen and worker”?

Enticing States Into Manipulating Kids’ Psyches

Nevertheless, the U. S. Department of Education (USED) is a huge proponent of SEL to develop the right mix of social and emotional traits in children. It has just kicked off a new competitive grant program to entice states into this minefield. Apparently, public schools have now achieved perfection in teaching academic content and can move on to more esoteric pursuits. As one exasperated parent in Connecticut remarked, “I feel like the school is teaching what I should be teaching (social and emotional traits) and I’m teaching what the school should be teaching (math).”

Apparently, public schools have now achieved perfection in teaching academic content and can move on to more esoteric pursuits.

Of course, if you teach these mindsets, you must measure them. In February 2013, USDOE’s Office of Educational Technology released a draft report called “Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century,” which seeks to “push the frontiers” of assessing students’ most personal attributes. This report argues non-cognitive traits must be measured and suggests that physiological readings and neuroimaging techniques (brain-scanning) could do the trick. The Grit report even helpfully provides pictures of the devices, such as facial-expression cameras and posture-analysis seats, that can be used on students “to examine frustration, motivation/flow, confidence, boredom, and fatigue.”

To be sure, the report devotes an entire paragraph (in 95 pages) to the appalling invasion of privacy these techniques would entail. But the primary problem it identifies is that these devices can be “impractical for use in school settings.” That is a temporary problem, however—the report lauds the Gates Foundation for funding research that may solve the impracticability dilemma. Think of what wonderful readings of children’s brains we can get once we achieve cost-effectiveness.

Most parents would be horrified to learn what the feds and the progressive education establishment want to do with their children’s most personal data. This white paper lays it out (including the threats posed by “personalized” interactive digital-learning platforms, which is too broad a topic to tackle here).

In the meantime, NAEP will push education in this direction by asking children to report their personalities and mindsets. After collecting and analyzing the NAEP assessment data, what does the federal government intend to do with the results? Will it create a one-size-fits-all set of SEL standards every child must meet? If so, would schools then be required to intervene and “help” children become the people the government wants them to be? It would be only to improve their education. Of course.