Assessment Opinion

Teaching and Testing the Skills That Matter Most

By Tony Wagner — November 11, 2008 4 min read
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A commission composed of some of the country’s leading college-admissions officers is recommending that universities shift from a reliance on SAT and ACT scores and instead use entrance exams that test the academic content taught in high schools. (“Panel Urges Reduced Use of College-Admission Exams,” Oct. 1, 2008.)

The commission members are right to urge colleges to stop using tests that tell us little about students’ real abilities, but their solution would only serve to make more universal the practice of teaching high school students to memorize more and more facts—the places, names, dates, definitions, and so on that are the meat and potatoes of our obsolete high school curriculum—and the use of multiple-choice tests to assess how much students have memorized.

Even in America’s most highly regarded secondary schools, we are not teaching or testing the skills that matter most for college, careers, and citizenship in the 21st century. Before we can change the admissions criteria for college, we need to be clear about the skills that all high school students need today.

Through reviews of the research and scores of interviews with college teachers, students, and executive officers from Apple to Unilever to the U.S. Army, I’ve discovered that there are seven survival skills that all students must master to get—and keep—a good job in today’s global knowledge economy, succeed in college, and be leaders in our communities. Briefly, they are skills that encompass the following:

Critical thinking and problem-solving. For companies to compete in the new global economy, they need every worker to think about how to continuously improve the companies’ products, processes, or services. The ability to think critically and apply what you know to new problems is also an essential skill for success in college.

Collaboration across networks and leading by influence. Most work in this country is done in teams. Yet students learn more about teamwork and leadership in their extracurricular activities than they do in their high school classes, where they spent much of the day listening to teachers lecture and filling out worksheets.

Agility and adaptability. Clay Parker, an engineer by training and the former chief executive officer at BOC Edwards, told me that anyone who works for him “has to think, be flexible, change and be adaptive, and use a variety of tools to solve new problems.” He added: “I can guarantee the job I hire someone to do will change or may not exist in the future, so this is why adaptability and learning skills are more important than technical skills.”

Initiative and entrepreneurialism. Mark Chandler, the senior vice president and general counsel at Cisco Systems Inc., tells his employees: “If you try five things and get all five of them right, you may be failing. If you try 10 things, and get eight of them right, you’re a hero. If you set stretch goals, you’ll never be blamed for failing to reach a stretch goal, but you will be blamed for not trying. Our challenge is how to create an entrepreneurial culture in a larger organization.”

Effective oral and written communication. Annmarie Neal, the vice president for talent management at Cisco, has said that “the biggest skill people are missing is the ability to communicate: both written and oral presentations.” College teachers report that poor writing skills are one of their major concerns about incoming students.

Accessing and analyzing information. Mike Summers, the vice president for global talent management at Dell Inc., told me, “There is so much information available that it is almost too much, and if people aren’t prepared to process the information effectively, it almost freezes them in their steps.” Yet few high school graduates know how to do an effective Internet search and determine which information is most important.

Curiosity and imagination. Engineer and former CEO Clay Parker stressed the importance of the employees he hires being more than just smart. “I want people who can think—they’re not just bright, they’re also inquisitive. Are they engaged, are they interested in the world?” College teachers agree: The questions that students ask matter far more for learning than the answers they have memorized.

There are U.S. schools, such as High Tech High School in San Diego, where all students learn to communicate effectively and apply information to the solution of new problems or the creation of real products. And there are tests that assess many of the competencies outlined here, such as the College and Work Readiness Assessment. But such schools and tests are the exception, rather than the rule.

If the country is to remain competitive in the global economy, high school students must master 21st-century skills. College-admissions officers can play a critical role by insisting that the skills that matter most for careers, college, and citizenship are tested and taught in our high schools.

A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as Teaching and Testing the Skills That Matter Most


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