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Assessing Student Learning of Twenty-First-Century Skills

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December 12, 2013 01:10 pm


Profound changes in the nation’s economy, demography, and technological landscape have prompted educators to rethink what competencies students must have to succeed in the twenty-first century. In response, education leaders recognize the need to challenge fundamental assumptions about how we educate and prepare students to meet the demands of employment, advanced training, and civic participation. These demands fall hard on teachers and students. Growing concerns about how to significantly improve the quality of education for all students is generating healthy debate about the use of meaningful assessments that capture outcomes beyond simple academic content knowledge.

On November 19th, the Alliance, in partnership with Asia Society, held a webinar on the design of “state-of-the-art” measures of twenty-first century skills—the central focus of a RAND working paper  presented at the October 2013 meeting of the Global Cities Education Network in Singapore. The final report will be published shortly and posted on the Asia Society website. Panelists Tony Jackson, Vice President for Education at Asia Society, and Laura Hamilton, Senior Behavioral Scientist at RAND Corporation, explored an expanding array of tools to assess student proficiency in critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and collaboration essential for success in an interconnected global economy. Gen Ling Chang from the Toronto School District in Ontario, Canada—one of the highest performing systems in the world—discussed what this means for designing curriculum and arming teachers with the knowledge and skills to help all students attain high-level cognitive and interpersonal skills. For more information, see, Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools.

It has often been said—and it must be understood—that even very well-designed assessments cannot by themselves improve learning. Indeed, for many years those who were skeptical of our assessment systems frequently used the old agricultural adage that “you can’t fatten a hog just by weighing it” to make their case that much of the testing going on in classrooms seemed to have little to do with learning. And looking at assessment practices in this country over the last decade makes it all too easy to say that the critics had a point.

The RAND report argues that educators can use information from tests to change what happens in the classroom in order to achieve better outcomes. It urges educators to develop or select assessments that capture the three categories of cognitive and intrapersonal competencies as defined by the 2012 National Research Council Report, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. Too often in the past, these deeper learning competencies have been ignored in the classroom because they are not measured by many state accountability tests.

The urgent need to ensure all students’ have skills in applying knowledge and solving complex problems was underscored by the December 3 release of the latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA is a test of reading literacy, mathematics, and science given every three years to fifteen-year-olds in the United States and more than sixty-five countries worldwide. US scores in math, reading, and science continue to lag behind other industrialized countries within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Since 2009, the proportion of top performers in the United States has declined over time in reading and math; US rankings fell from 25th to 26th in math and from 14th to 17th in reading. The report shows a disturbing gap between our nation’s current economic strength and the future human capital with the deeper learning skills needed to sustain and strengthen U.S. growth. Although PISA data draws attention because of the interest in how the United States ranks internationally, it is important to look beyond the rankings to examine what can be learned from high-performing nations, particularly on the use of assessments that measure deeper learning.

The RAND report describes in-depth about twenty measurement approaches and tools that can provide information to improve student learning and outcomes. Hamilton presented the example of the Mission Skills Assessment, which includes an open-ended, situational judgment test along with other measures that together captures twenty-first century competencies such as motivation, collaboration, creativity, time management, and resilience. It produces indicators for use at the school-level rather than the individual student-level. Teachers and school administrators report the benefits of using this tool, including being more intentional about fostering them, building a common vocabulary around them, making curriculum more engaging, setting benchmarks for improvement, and making students aware of value they bring to the school outside of academics, especially for students with disabilities.

Another example is the Graduation Performance System, a cutting-edge performance assessment developed by the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity and Asia Society, to measure global competence. In the GPS framework, global competence is broken down into constituent skills, including investigating the world, weighing perspectives, communicating ideas, taking action, and applying expertise within and across disciplines. It provides guidance on scoring rubrics, model design and implementation, assessment of student work, combining that work into a portfolio, and determining whether that final product meets standards to deem the student globally competent.

How the GPS worksResearchers over the past few decades have probed deeply into the nature of expertise, revealing how people learn and reason and what shapes competent performance. Focusing on how people learn helps teachers move beyond such false dichotomies as whether curricula should emphasize the basics or teach thinking and problem solving. The webinar panelists concurred that information from testing should ultimately help improve learning. Teachers are at a great disadvantage to work with students to build twenty-first century skills and competencies when it results in students performing poorly on standardized tests that focus only on surface knowledge.

Key takeaways from the webinar include:

  • Assessment systems must be designed to improve student learning. According to the National Research Council the “effectiveness and utility of assessment is predicated on the extent to which assessment educates and improves student performance, not merely to audit it.”
  • States need to create a comprehensive, balanced assessment system that includes both assessment of  learning to report on what’s been learned as well as assessments for learning that provide ongoing feedback to teachers and students as learning progresses.
  • All assessments, whether for large-scale accountability or day-to-day instruction, should be based on current knowledge about the nature of learning and validated for their specific purposes. States should conduct frequent evaluations to ensure validity, reliability, and fairness of assessments and to determine their impact on teaching and student learning.
  • Policymakers need to shift more attention to classroom-based assessments that permit a finer grain analysis of student understanding through the use of a variety of performance-based tasks (e.g., open-ended responses, portfolios, technology-based items).
  • States should ensure that teachers have the tools and training they need to strengthen the connection between assessment and instruction based on our knowledge of how students learn and how such learning can be measured.

For more information about PISA scores and “PISA Day”— a national digital event that the Alliance held along with nine other education organizations—go to

Mariana Haynes is a Senior Fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education.


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