When You Say Nothing at All: The Predictive Power of Student Effort on Surveys

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Noncognitive Skills, Educational Attainment, Employment Income, Human Capital JEL Classifications


Character traits and noncognitive skills are important for human capital development and longrun life outcomes. Research in economics and psychology now shows this clearly. But research into the exact determinants of noncognitive skills have been slowed by a common data limitation: most large-scale datasets do not contain adequate measures of noncognitive skills. This is a particularly acute problem in education policy evaluation. We demonstrate that there are important latent data within any survey dataset that can be used as proxy measures of noncognitive skills. Specifically, we examine the amount of conscientious effort that students exhibit on surveys, as measured by their item response rates. We use six nationally representative, longitudinal surveys of American youth. We find that the percentage of questions left unanswered during the baseline year, when respondents were adolescents, is a significant predictor of later-life outcomes. Respondents with higher item response rates are more likely to attain higher levels of education. The pattern of findings gives compelling reasons to view item response rates as a promising behavioral measure of noncognitive skills for use in future research in education. We posit that response rates are a partial measure of conscientiousness, though additional research from the field of psychology is required to determine what exact noncognitive skills are being captured by item response rates


EDRE Working Paper 2014-10