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THE “MUST HAVE” SKILLS: Education Sector Report Makes Case for Incorporating Modern Skills Into Assessments

“Nearly every segment of the workforce now requires employees to know how to do more than simple procedures—they look for workers who can recognize what kind of information matters, why it matters, and how it connects and applies to other information.”

The primarily multiple-choice tests used to assess reading and math ability, though useful for meeting proficiency targets for the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), generally are not helpful in determining a student’s college- and work-readiness. So says Education Sector in its new report, Measuring Skills for the 21st Century. Within the report, Education Sector does not call for the creation of additional tests but instead declares “a need for better tests that measure more of the skills students need to succeed today.”

The report asserts that such a shift in focus is necessary due to changes in the economy that have occurred over the past twenty years. Citing Tough Choices or Tough Times, written by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce in 2006, it acknowledges the importance of basic skills but adds that creativity, innovation, and higher education are now the keys to economic and job security. “Nearly every segment of the workforce now requires employees to know how to do more than simple procedures—they look for workers who can recognize what kind of information matters, why it matters, and how it connects and applies to other information,” it reads.

The report notes that twenty-first-century skills, though defined in a number of ways, essentially concern “what students can do with knowledge, rather than what units of knowledge they have.” Technology literacy is frequently mentioned as a twenty-first-century skill that is needed across a number of industries.

Countering the assumption that twenty-first-century skills “cannot be fairly or reliably measured,” the report describes several tests and programs that do just that. One example is the College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA), administered by a handful of private schools. For the assessment, students are faced with a real-world problem to address, such as how to manage traffic congestion spurred by population growth. They are given online documents such as newspaper articles and research reports to help inform their decisions, and must articulate their solutions in writing. Though designed to evaluate a school’s improvement rather than an individual student’s, the tests are also seen as a way to measure student learning.

“Are we teaching our students to think intelligently and critically, to do more than just follow or even lead, but to find new paths to go down? That’s what we learn from [the CWRA],” says John Austin, academic dean of the CWRA-administering St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, DE, as quoted in the report.

Assessments such as CWRA are considerably more expensive than multiple-choice tests. North Carolina’s “multiple-choice, machine-scored assessments” cost about 60 cents apiece to score, and Massachusetts’ test, with its mix of multiple-choice and open-ended questions, costs $7 each (according to a 2003 Government Accounting Office report); however, it costs more than $40 to score one CWRA.

In its conclusion, Measuring Skills for the 21st Century emphasizes that these assessments would be only one component of better serving students. “The basic principle that there is no real choice between basic and 21st century skills—that both are essential learning outcomes for students—must also apply to standards and curriculum,” it reads. “Even more important, delivering better learning hinges on preparing and supporting quality teachers who can deliver the ‘must have’ combination of basic and advanced learning to all students.”

During the week of November 10, Elena Silva, senior policy analyst at Education Sector and author of the report, Eva Baker, director of UCLA’s Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, and Paul Curtis, chief academic officer of New Technology Foundation, participated in a weeklong online discussion about assessment and twenty-first-century skills. View the discussion at

To download the full report, please visit


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