Assessment Commentary

Assessment in the Age of Innovation

By Charles Fadel, Margaret Honey & Shelley Pasnik — May 18, 2007 7 min read

Within the past 50 years, we’ve seen our country move from an industrial economy to an information-based economy. Now, early in the 21st century, it appears we are shifting to an innovation-based economy, one that requires what the psychologist Robert J. Sternberg calls “successful intelligence,” a three-point foundation of analytical, practical, and creative skills. In other words, the measure of success in today’s economy is not just what you know, but how you use that to imagine new ways to get work done, solve problems, or create new knowledge. This innovation-based environment calls for substantially new forms of assessment, and therein lies a major hurdle for schools, especially American schools, trying to prepare students for this new century.

— Steven Braden


American students today are largely evaluated based on their factual knowledge. A recent study by Robert C. Pianta and his colleagues at the University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning found that the average 5th grader received five times as much instruction in basic skills as instruction focused on problem-solving or reasoning. Our existing assessment system tends to reinforce rote instructional practices emphasizing the drilling of facts likely to be on a test, rather than problem-solving and reasoning strategies difficult to capture in multiple-choice test items.

If we look at the effectiveness of such practices, and benchmark our success against international competitors, the results are not promising. Test scores from the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which surveys 15-year-old schoolchildren in industrialized countries worldwide, show that, on average, U.S. students lag behind those in Europe and Asia in problem-solving skills in mathematics and science. Schools in Europe and Asia generally teach students how to apply knowledge to novel situations more successfully than do schools in the United States.

If we are to help students succeed in a 21st-century economy and society, we must find ways to measure their ability to apply knowledge to complex and challenging tasks, and to behave in other ways that predict successful engagement in the world as it is now. Because the most salient features of today’s world seem to be change, and the accelerating rate of that change, a major part of a person’s skill set must be the ability to adapt to new conditions and imagine new solutions.

Twenty-first century learning is about the process of integrating and using knowledge, not just the acquisition of facts and procedures.

With the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act under way, the time is right to engage the nation’s policymakers in thinking about what 21st-century assessment should be. Assessing student performance in an innovation-based economy will require a transformation—from a sole focus on traditional subject-matter mastery to a new definition of educational excellence that encompasses the skills and understandings required by the new economy. The challenge we face as a nation in building a world-class education system is not only to educate toward rigorous standards benchmarked against the best systems in the world, but also to design an education system that puts a premium on the full complement of content and skills that will enable students to succeed in this ever-changing environment.

What are the essential elements of such learning? The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a leading advocacy organization in this area, identifies them as core academic content that is infused with subject-matter themes such as global awareness; financial, economic, business, and entrepreneurial literacy; and civic and health literacy, as well as learning skills that stress creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem-solving, and communication and collaboration, along with information, media, and technology skills, and life and career skills. To prepare students to succeed as citizens, thinkers, and workers in the new century, and to enable teachers and school administrators to educate students for a future in which such skills are the markers of success, we must embrace a more comprehensive view of what constitutes learning.

Many of our high-achieving competitors are pushing for exactly this sort of innovation in education. A recent report by Singapore’s Ministry of Education, for example, opens with this statement: “Education is about preparing our people for the future. To thrive in the world in 2015, Singaporeans need strong analytical, communication, and interpersonal skills. They have to be more risk-taking, entrepreneurial, and able to tolerate greater ambiguity. Most importantly, they need to continuously learn, unlearn, and relearn to remain relevant in a dynamic environment.”

Assessments designed to gauge how well students master these more complex objectives of 21st-century learning will have to use a range of strategies, constructed-response items, essays, and other real-world and virtual performance measures that can help us evaluate how effectively students apply knowledge to problem-solving situations. Twenty-first century learning is about the process of integrating and using knowledge, not just the acquisition of facts and procedures. Hence, educators need to build assessments for learning, rather than solely of learning.

The new assessments will have to do the following:

Be largely performance-based. We need to know how students apply content knowledge to critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical tasks throughout their education, so that we can help them hone this ability and come to understand that successful learning is as much about the process as it is about facts and figures.

Make students’ thinking visible. The assessments should reveal the kinds of conceptual strategies a student uses to solve a problem.

Generate data that can be acted upon. Teachers need to be able to understand what the assessment reveals about students’ thinking. And school administrators, policymakers, and teachers need to be able to use this assessment information to determine how to create better opportunities for students.

Build capacity in both teachers and students. Assessments should provide frequent opportunity for feedback and revision, so that both teachers and students learn from the process.

Be part of a comprehensive and well-aligned continuum. Assessment should be an ongoing process that is well-aligned to the target concepts, or core ideas, reflected in the standards.

Building new assessments is a complex and costly undertaking, and there is good reason to believe that innovation in this area will require novel funding strategies from both the public and private sectors.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, a government body that maintains and develops the British national curriculum and its associated assessments, has invested the equivalent of $50 million in developing a new assessment system. In that system, test activities take place within a virtual city, and are designed to assess students’ information, communication, and technology, or ICT, skills, as well as their ability to use such skills to solve a set of complex problems involving research, communication, information management, and presentation.

The British assessment’s ambitious design reflects the country’s intention not only to set a new direction for the assessment of ICT skills, but also to generate an approach to computer-administered assessment that will ultimately be employed in other content areas. Interestingly, as early as 1992, the now-defunct U.S. Office of Technology Assessment published a report, “Testing in American Schools: Asking the Right Questions,” which noted that cutting-edge technologies could help push testing beyond conventional paper-and-pencil formats by structuring and presenting complex tasks, tracking students’ cognitive processes, and providing rapid feedback.

Another example of assessment innovation resides closer to home, in the National Science Foundation’s consortium of teachers, university-based researchers, and software developers designing formative mathematics assessments that run on hand-held computers. These assessments help teachers implement a form of research-based “clinical interview.” Based on the work of Jean Piaget, this assessment approach provides teachers with a window into children’s thinking. It helps them understand not only the mathematical knowledge of primary students, but also the strategies they use to solve math problems. The technology helps teachers keep track of students’ answers and reasoning strategies, and generates a performance profile at the end of an interview session. The kind of diagnostic data generated through such assessments gives teachers information they can act on instructionally.

Funding for developing such innovative assessments is admittedly a strategy for the longer term. What is important for the short term is that states realize they are in a position to exert tremendous influence over the kinds of assessments being developed for today’s students. Using the criteria cited here as a starting point, state departments of education can craft requests for proposals that specify exactly what they are looking for in a 21st-century assessment system.

Such requests are clearly going to have to break with existing conventions, however, and recognize that compelling, effective approaches to assessment are more likely to come from individuals and partnerships that are themselves focused on innovation, and not necessarily from traditional providers.

A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2007 edition of Education Week as Assessment in the Age Of Innovation


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