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Assessing ‘21st-Century Skills’ Won’t Be Easy, Paper Says

By Catherine Gewertz — November 10, 2008 3 min read
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Business and higher education leaders are pleading with schools to teach “21st-century skills,” such as interdisciplinary thinking, that students need to flourish in an increasingly global, technology-rich society. But figuring out whether the skills have been taught well will require assessing them well, and that won’t be easy or cheap, a new paper warns.

“Integrating 21st-century skills into teaching and assessment ... is not only an economic imperative, driven by changes in the workforce, but a vital aspect of improving student learning,” says “Measuring Skills for the 21st Century,” a white paper scheduled for release Nov. 10 by the Washington-based think tank Education Sector.

The paper joins a growing chorus of calls from business and education leaders for schooling to adapt to a changing economy. They argue that most schools concentrate too much on imparting factual information, rather than ensuring that students know how to use information.

In an age when facts can be located in seconds on the Internet, schools should teach students such skills as how to critically evaluate what they find, connect it to other subjects, apply it to real-world problems, and collaborate well with partners halfway around the globe, these advocates argue.

More Complex

Measuring such skills will require instruments more complex than multiple-choice tests, a prospect that sparks skepticism about whether the approach is feasible in a time of accountability, when some states are eliminating even short-answer items from tests to save time and money, said Elena Silva, the Education Sector policy analyst who wrote the report.

But assessments are emerging that offer promise for evaluating the broad and deep sets of skills students need now, she said.

Among the examples examined in the report is the College Work and Readiness Assessment, which is being used by a few private schools and one public school. Using reports, budgets, and similar materials, students are asked to solve such problems as managing traffic congestion in a growing city. In doing so, they have to draw on their skills in math, reading, and other core subjects, and also show how well they can evaluate information and bring multiple subjects to bear to forge creative solutions.

New technology is facilitating the assessment of such skills, the report says. For example, River City is an online curriculum and assessment for middle school science, developed by Harvard University researchers with grants from the National Science Foundation and now in use by 5,000 students in three countries.

In an interactive computer simulation, students travel back in time to figure out why residents of a town are falling ill. They work in teams to collect information, develop hypotheses about how to solve the problem, design experiments to test their theories, and write recommendations based on their data.

Using more-complex tests raises significant issues, the Education Sector report says. One is a question of subjectivity when people, instead of machines, are required to score them. Another is the cost of training and monitoring scorers, and the time spent in scoring the tests.

Overcoming Barriers

Assessment expert W. James Popham, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, called the think tank’s report “thought-provoking and accurate.” But he said in an e-mail that it is “tougher, way tougher, to build these tests than even Silva’s sobering analysis suggests.”

Too often, he said, such tests can be “barely camouflaged intelligence tests” that favor children with strong verbal or quantitative aptitude. If tests of 21st-century skills are to play a constructive role in instruction, Mr. Popham said, educators must be able to teach all children those skills, and give tests that truly allow them to display that mastery.

One of the biggest barriers to widespread teaching and assessment of 21st-century skills is the idea that children must learn “basic skills” before progressing to more-complex, higher-order skills, said Christopher Dede, a professor in learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Mr. Dede is one of the developers of River City and a member of a task force that is guiding Massachusetts in embedding such skills into its curriculum.

Advances in psychology in the past half-century have shown, he said, that students are better engaged, and learn basic skills better, when they are taught in the context of more-complicated ones, such as solving a real-world problem.

“We’ve never made that shift, and most people still don’t understand that,” Mr. Dede said. “That fundamental misconception has to be addressed.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as Assessing ‘21st-Century Skills’ Won’t Be Easy, Paper Says

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