Coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s, I thought of school as a parallel universe. There was school life, which happened between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., and there was real life, which was everything that happened outside of those hours. These two separate worlds did not relate to one another. I couldn’t see how the skills I was learning in the classroom aligned with those I thought were necessary to live beyond the school walls.
In the 21st century, we can no longer afford this disconnect. To help students become college- and career-ready, we need to teach them how to apply what they are learning in school to the practical and intellectual tasks in their everyday lives. We need to teach them new skills that will help them thrive in an increasingly interconnected and fast-changing world. School, in other words, can no longer just be “academic.”
In the 21st century, we are facing a global economy where information travels at the speed of light and knowledge of how to harness and sift through that information has become vital to our personal and national well-being. As an educator, I know my students must graduate from our halls ready to function in this expanded world.
However, in education, as we know, the tail that wags the dog is the standardized test. Standardized tests dictate our curriculum. And unfortunately, these assessments remain submerged in the bubble test format made popular in the mid-1930s when, according to Time magazine, the automated test scanner first appeared. In truth, this method of testing may assess content knowledge, but not what will soon be more important: the ability to communicate that content and problem-solve.
The question is: Until those tests go away or are transformed, can we, the classroom teachers, cater to two masters—the predictable testing format and the skills we know ethically we must teach our students to prepare them for their futures? I believe we can.
Behind Classroom Doors
The key here is in what we do behind our own classroom doors. We may have to live with these bubble tests, but we need to make sure that our own classroom assessments are aligned with the skills our students will need in the future. We can go ahead and continue to teach content knowledge to prepare our students for their bubble tests, but we should develop assessments that challenge their ability to apply that content. Instead of a multiple-choice question that asks what the theme of a story is, for example, we might have students describe how that theme applies to real life. Instead of a multiple-choice question about a particular date in history, we might have our students find a similar current event and relate it to past events. Instead of a multiple-choice question to answer an equation about the area of a figure, we might have students apply that equation to a local architectural structure and describe why knowing its dimensions is important.
Learning today isn’t just about subject knowledge. It’s more about methodology and how to apply that knowledge. When I plan my lessons, I begin with the list of new skills I want to teach and design assessments to match those skills. I then backward-plan the lessons to align them with the assessments.
Here are some other ideas to jump-start your use of 21st-century assessments:
Collaborate: Have students create a wiki to promote a book that your class is reading. Or use videoconferencing tools to help them conduct small-group work with students outside your own classroom. Use rubrics to assess students’ collaborative abilities. Have students assess themselves and each other’s contributions to determine an individual and a group grade.
Connect through writing: Have your students write and moderate a discussion-thread online using a secure blogging program like kidblog.org. Pick a topic for your classroom that can be sustained so that the conversation goes on long after the school bell rings. Have students provide links in their text so they can share further research on the topic. Their blog can be assessed as a writing piece, but their ability to comment and give advice should count equally.
Persuade: Have students research a local social cause, create a Facebook fan page to promote its importance, and do an oral presentation for the school board or local community members. Advocacy of any kind is a skill that students can put to future use. You should assess them each step of the way—in their written pitches to you, in their visual or online ads for their peers, and in their oral presentations. You could even have the students design the rubrics themselves ahead of time and come to a consensus about what exceeds and what doesn’t satisfy expectations.
Summarize and synthesize: Have students create an executive summary about a local cause that could be e-mailed to policymakers and community leaders. Have them insert pictures and links to resources and to video footage in their packet to provide further information about their cause. Their PR package then becomes its own assessment: a multi-genre piece of written fact, anecdote, visual guides, and links.
Use critical thinking: Keep assignments open-ended so that students are allowed choice of presentation and format. Let them decide what strategies best define the project. Student choice is the best differentiation available, and it also reflects a more authentic real-life experience. After all, there is choice outside of school, and we should mirror those opportunities inside school. Also, teach students how to ask deeper questions as a means to assess strong comprehension. (For more information, research Costa’s Levels of Questioning, which describe three levels of questioning for inquiry-based learning.) Another possibility: Have students create a survey using a service like surveymonkey.com. Have them pose a series of questions for peers to answer oriented around the content they’re studying. Assess the survey based on the quality of questions asked and the variety of formats—true or false, open-ended, multiple-choice, or short answer—they used.
Problem-solve: Allow students to use their classroom tests formatively. Have them reflect on answers they missed by creating working portfolios. Have them record their reflections on why they answered how they did and why the correct answer is right. Have them describe their realizations in writing. Have them graph their overall improvement from quarter to quarter. Give them the opportunity to improve their initial scores by turning in their reflections for credit.
I challenge you to make these 21st-century skills and assessments a focus in your classroom. Roll up your sleeves and arm yourself with the knowledge of what’s to come so that our students will have the skills to thrive once they leave us. You have chosen to work in a profession that is meant to prepare children for their future. Despite what our current standardized tests look like, keep your students’ future in mind: Close your door, dig in, and prepare them.
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2010 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Classroom Assessments for a New Century