From WBEZ by Robin Amer:
In education, sometimes it’s the oldest questions that matter most: What makes a good teacher? How does a school get test scores up? But, these days, educators are also asking this question: How important are all the things tests can’t measure?

A middle school on Chicago’s West Side thinks it has an answer. We take you to Chicago Jesuit Academy, a school that teaches—and grades-- life skills right up there with book learning.

High expectations

CJA is expensive: $17,500 per student per year. But kids go here basically for free—most of the tuition is paid by private donors, and the school only takes kids whose families don’t make a lot of money.

Most of the students went to poorly performing elementary schools before they applied to this 7-year-old school, which is part of a loose national network of faith-based schools called NativityMiguel.

CJA administrators insist they don’t “cream the crop” during admissions by taking only boys with good test scores-- they say they’ve admitted students who perform as low as the 10th percentile nationally.

But they do look at other things: Parental involvement, for instance, and behaviors that suggest how a boy might cope in a demanding environment. That’s because students are expected to leave here testing above grade level. Last year’s 8th graders tested, on average, at the 11th grade level.

The goal is for them to get into top high schools, with scholarships. Then, for them to compete at those schools, to thrive-- alongside more privileged classmates.

Lessons learned

Tom Beckley is the principal at CJA. He’s a former Navy man, who sometimes greets his students like new recruits—with a handshake and a hearty “welcome aboard.”

In his cluttered office, tucked in a corner of the main atrium, Beckley says the school didn’t always emphasize character and behavior the way it does now.

At first, they mainly pushed students academically, trying to make up for time lost in failing elementary schools. That approach seemed to work: Many of their first graduates had strong test scores and got into good high schools – Loyola, St. Ignatius, even East Coast boarding schools.

But then, Beckley says, they did not do well in 9th grade.

“They went to high school and struggled right out of the gate,” he says. “We scratched our heads and said, but look at their test scores! We realized, boy, that’s only a small part of the equation.”

CJA stays in touch with all of their graduates, and these days those first grads have settled into their college prep high schools and are doing pretty well. But as freshly minted 9th graders they had bad study habits and made bad choices: Their homework folders were a mess; they always chose gym over study hall. And, they had attitude problems: Beckley says these kids couldn’t control their impulses, and no one could tell them what to do. He says pushing them academically hadn’t been enough.

Beckley says he realized that when you look at grades, it doesn’t say attitude, organization and math. It just says math. So about a year and a half ago the school put in place a new grading policy, one that took attitude and organization more seriously.

Now at CJA, it’s not enough to master Y=X. Now, 70 percent of every grade a student gets here– on every spelling worksheet, every book report - is based on behavior and habits that CJA calls executive function.

Beckley rattles off some of the expectations involved: “You are doing every single problem of a mathematics assignment regardless of whether or not you have gotten each one wrong. You know how to put down objectives in your notebook and you always have a heading on your paper. You're always contacting your teacher outside of class at least once in a week.”

“Those are the most important skills they need,” he says. “What we see over and over, is that students with average academic aptitude can really be successful if they have an excellent set of executive function skills.”

So if student is failing at CJA, that doesn’t mean they don’t get the math. They just might not have their act together.

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