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A Method for Character Research


by Theodore E. Lentz - 1926


Is there a measurable difference between so-called delinquent and non-delinquent children? Is there such a thing as character? Does it exist in quantity? Can it be measured? Assuming an affirmative answer to these questions and yet willing to test such an assumption an experimenter has carried on an intensive study which he describes under the title of An Experimental Method for the Discovery and Development of Tests of Character.1


In the introductory chapter the writer points out what may be taken as the occasion for his interest in this field of measurement as the most strategic point of attack in the scientific promotion of educational progress. Some of his premises are as follows:


1. "Morality is more susceptible than intellect to environmental influence. Moral traits are more often matters of the direction of capacities and the creation of desires and aversions. Over them, then, education has greater sway, though school education, because of the peculiar narrowness of the life of the schoolroom, has so far done little for any save the semi-intellectual virtues."2


2. Ideals and attitudes are more important than skills and information.


3. As Kilpatrick would say: "Interest in a subject is more to be desired than knowledge of a subject."


4. It is fully as important to know the disposition of a child—his purposes and emotional connections as to be able to ascertain his mental age or I.Q.


5. A. Measurement of character traits and their changes is indispensable to scientific experimentation regarding effective methods and materials for producing these changes.


B. Character measurement likewise would enable the teacher and administrator to diagnose the needs of individual pupils and effect adventitious classification and adaptation of treatment.


C. Character measurement would also enable administrators to locate and retain those teachers who are effecting the greater amount of moral change in pupils.


D. Character measurement would force the issue of character education by revealing the facts concerning character development or the dearth of it in our various schools.


In a word, character measurement will enable the experimental curriculum maker to proceed with some degree of scientific certainty, the individual teacher to analyze and ascertain the individual moral and temperamental needs and capacities of her pupils, the administrator to more advantageously classify pupils and select and retain the more desirable teachers, and the public to know what is being done and to make explicit and mandatory a widespread inarticulate desire for development in the ideal life of their children.


Granting the importance of the measurement of extra intellectual aspects of the individual what are the possible methods for research? Character measurement is perhaps to-day where mental measurement was twenty years ago. What does the field of intelligence measurement research have to suggest? Binet happily assumed that the way to develop a scale for diagnosing the trait of feeble-mindedness was to place feeble-minded and normal children side by side for comparative study. This method gave us the Binet scale. The author of the present study has attempted to carry this general method over to the general field of character measurement. The primary function of the experiment was not to develop tests of character but to experiment with a method for developing such tests. As applied here the method may be described as an intensive objective comparison of sociologically contrasted groups. More specifically in this case it resolved itself into an objective statistical comparative experimental study of delinquent and non-delinquent boys. This method assumes the possible validity of a certain criterion, namely a real and perhaps measurable difference between those children selected by the organized machinery of society, found in school and court, as being delinquent and an unselected random group of children considered as being non-delinquent.


The experiment divides itself into two parts: (1) The preliminary search for promising tests. (2) The retesting of some of these tests.


For the preliminary experiment two groups of boys were chosen—one from a probation school in Greater New York, ranging in chronological age from ten to sixteen and in mental age from ten to fourteen, the other from a junior high school in the same community. The two groups were carefully matched for both chronological and mental age. These two groups of boys were designated as delinquent and non-delinquent and assumed to have general character differences of an extra-intellectual nature. Something less than forty tests were then submitted to both groups—always in the same way and so far as possible under the same conditions. The tests ranged from those with specific instructions and with definite time limit to tests where the time was unlimited and the instructions vague, such as "write me a paragraph on any one of three subjects—and hand it in when you get through." The sole purpose of this part of the experiment was to discover any tests whatever that would show a difference between the two groups, by any method of scoring that might be used. Six of the most promising tests were then submitted to three further groups of delinquent and non-delinquent boys in Kansas City, New York, and Brooklyn. As a result of this check work, only two of the six tests were shown to indicate valid and significant differences between the delinquent and non-delinquent groups.


These two tests were a short questionnaire and what is termed a "Daily Contribution" test. The questionnaire covered such points as church attendance, number of musical instruments and rooms in the home, working for pay, preference for school or work, etc. The delinquents invariably express a greater preference for employment over school attendance; likewise, report less church attendance, and fewer musical instruments and smaller homes. The "Daily Contribution" test called upon the boys for a daily response in supplying the examiner with information in a general enterprise for collecting certain data. As judged by this test there seems to be a striking difference in the cooperativeness of the delinquent and unselected boy. While the test as used at times failed to function and obviously is a very rough test in need of much refinement, it gives promise of being a splendid lead in this field.


A significant feature of the experiment was the failure to find any significant difference between the delinquent and non-delinquent in tests of ethical discrimination. If this finding repeats itself in further studies it will relegate the Ethical Discrimination Test to the rank of a poor test of intelligence.


There are other interesting indications from the preliminary study which are not so final since they were not checked by the larger subsequent groups. Four honesty tests were administered in which the percentage of "dishonest" reactions were consistently lower among the delinquent group. Further verification of this point might prove an enlightening commentary on modern education. A repetition test was given in which the situation calling for the same reaction was presented twice and the discrepancy between the two reactions noted. The situation included several lists of words in each of which the subjects were asked to cross out those things in which they were interested.3 According to the results of this test one would be inclined to say that the delinquents were more inclined to change their mind or to feign an interest oftener or to have fewer real interests. The author believes this technique may eventually lead to the successful testing of interest in various fields. A list of occupations was submitted for rating for general social usefulness. It was interesting to note that both delinquent and non-delinquent groups rated doctor first and movie actor lowest in usefulness. This same list was later presented for rating for preference as a personal vocation. The discrepancy between these two ratings seemed to show some difference between the groups. It was thought that this test might have some bearing on vocational altruism. Other tests reported but not checked by the final groups should prove stimulating to other workers in the field.


There was found in one or two cases evidence contradictory to what had been published by expert authority in the field of delinquency. This raises an interesting question as to our past methods of studying delinquency, namely, the absolute and case method versus the comparative and statistical method. To say that certain things are characteristics of delinquents will be more significant when we are able to say that by the same method and technique something different is found to be characteristic of non-delinquents. In other words, would not the study of a controlled group of non-delinquent subjects as illustrated in this report seem to be a highly desirable part of any serious study of delinquency?


This study brings more clearly into relief the problem of criteria against which to check or evaluate tests. The criterion of subjective ratings by teachers and others was rejected in favor of the sociological one of presence in the regular school on the one hand as compared with presence in a delinquent institution on the other. The author recognizes the limitations in this criterion and submits it for what it is worth. That certain tests show no difference between the contrasted groups presents no final argument against the tests but merely indicates their inability to detect delinquency. Equally intensive work with other criteria may enable us later to make valid comparison among the various criteria. While many of the tests show no relation to mental age the author feels that the labor of equating groups for intelligence as well as chronological age is highly justified.


The general conclusions of the study are as follows;


I. The general method used, namely the intensive comparative study of sociologically contrasted groups, while not fully evaluated by this experiment, gives promise of yielding positive results.


II. This method is necessarily a long one as the process of evolving character tests will necessarily prove tedious and, at times, discouraging, with many reverses and contradiction. It is reasonable, however, to expect that a great many such studies would give us quite a number of valid tests, all of which taken together would form an efficient battery for measuring delinquent tendencies. The extended use of this method should reveal general techniques for character measurement and in time reveal specific tests of much greater value than those tried in the experiment.


III. Great variability was found between different non-delinquent groups. This variability between similar groups suggests that the tests were measuring school or community differences as well as traits connected with delinquency. This difficulty may prove to be a serious one with this method, making it in this respect less desirable than a method where a valid criterion could be obtained in terms of quantitative appraisal of individual differences within a single group.


IV. This variability, however, may be due in part to the delicacy of the tests and suggests a general difficulty in character testing. In this field we attempt to measure not what a subject can do but what he will do. Obviously, his disposition will prove to be more variable than his capacity, due to both the controllable and the non-controllable elements in the situation. Any slight change in the administration of the tests, such as the intonation of voice, or placement of emphasis, or presence of a beloved or disliked teacher, or the influence of other members of the group may change the momentary disposition vitally. Moreover, incidents of the night before, or at the breakfast table, or on the way to school may influence the response where the stimulus is vague and indefinite.


V. It is illustrated in the first half of the study that great danger exists in evaluating tests by a partial method without a subsequent check by new groups. All tests of this character would seem to demand retesting by groups other than those in the experiment by which the tests were originally discovered and calibrated.


VI. There is evidence as far as the study has gone that definite measurable differences do exist between delinquent and non-delinquent groups. If studies embodying this method of intensive objective comparative study can be sufficiently multiplied there is reason to expect significant revelation regarding the fundamental nature of delinquency which will place us in position to effect its prevention.


The value of the study then is to be found in the fact that it represents the first serious attempt to evolve character tests by the method of intensive objective comparison of sociologically contrasted groups—being a contribution to methodology in the field of character measurement; and second, in its approach to a scientific study of delinquency . . . being the first intensive objective comparative study of delinquents and non-delinquents; and third, in what it adds to the details of test technique. To those who believe in the extreme utility of character measurement and are willing to see a vast expenditure of time and energy expended in such research this study gives room for considerable hope.







1By Theodore E. Lentz, Contributions to Education, No. 180.

2Thorndike, E. L., Educational Psychology, Vol. 3, p. 313.

3Adapted from Pressey X-O Test.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 27 Number 9, 1926, p. 836-836
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 5955, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 5:47:17 AM

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