P21: Rethink testing for future success

Today’s high-stakes tests are inadequate tools for measuring the kinds of skills students will need for success in the global, technology-driven workplace, according to a group of key business and education leaders. The group, called the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), has issued a new report calling on national and state policy makers to ratchet up efforts to design and implement new assessments that can effectively measure these skills.

P21’s new report, "The Assessment of 21st Century Skills: The Current Landscape," highlights progress in the United States and abroad toward developing the "means to measure complex, higher-order thinking skills." The report is accompanied by a new online tool designed to help assess these skills.

The report also notes that educational institutions around the world are only just beginning to create such assessments. But researchers point to examples they consider representative of the best testing models for information and communication technology (ICT) learning skills.

Chief among these is the Key Stage 3 (ages 12-13) ICT Literary Assessment developed by the British government’s Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).

The British online examination was among the tests that received the highest praise from P21 researchers. They found the test to "represent a sophisticated new approach to combining assessment of content-area and thinking skills, and to building assessments that can provide both national data on students’ capabilities and information on individual students pertinent to classroom-level instruction."

The test assesses ICT skills, as well as students’ ability to use those skills to solve complex problems involving "research, communication, information management, and presentation." Researchers offered an example in which students were asked to write and publish a journalistic article examining the ethnic diversity of a small town’s police force and teachers. For the assessment, students collect and analyze employment data, eMail sources for permission to publish information, and present the data in graphic and written form. Students use search engines, navigate web-based information sources, exchange eMail with information sources, and employ spreadsheets, word processors, and presentation software to study and present research.

The QCA test uses a "responsive assessment engine" to track and respond to performance on both technical and problem-solving skills throughout the assessment. The computer tracks students’ actions and then maps them against capabilities they are expected to demonstrate at each level of the national curriculum.

"Student scores are based on their performance in these areas, as well as their demonstrated level of technical skills, and the test engine’s final output includes not only a numerical score … but a detailed profile of the test-taker’s performance and areas for potential improvement," the study finds. It says these qualities make the QCA test "useful not only for ranking students, but for providing them with targeted instruction for the future."

This latest P21 study is meant to follow up on the organization’s 2003 report, "Learning for the 21st Century," which sought to create a common language and strategic direction for efforts to bring training to K-12 education in what the group has identified as necessary 21st century skills. It’s essential, said P21, that the emerging workforce should have a strong grasp of these skills for the United States to remain relevant and competitive in the global economy.

P21 group participants include representatives from Cisco Systems Inc., the National Education Association, Apple Computer Inc., the Ford Motor Company Fund, the American Association of School Librarians, and Dell Inc.


At a June 21 press conference to announce the release of "The Current Landscape," Charles Fidel, global lead for education at Cisco, speculated that a number of factors have contributed to what has been measured as an American lag in producing students and workers with 21st century skills.

"During the space race and the cold war," Fidel said, "the U.S. was producing a lot of scientists and engineers. It resonated with the times. Interest has faded away to all sorts of other topics. In the meantime, we have seen a decline in enrollment in those disciplines. Foreigners have filled the gap since then, with foreign students making up 60 percent of enrollment for those disciplines."

But Fidel said that, since the terrorist attacks against the U.S. in 2001, it has become much more difficult to obtain a student visa to enter the country. The war in Iraq and a number of other factors also have made immigrants less likely to come to the U.S. to study.

The partnership designed its report to address concerns about the potential effects this development could have on the U.S. economy. It looks to answer the question, "How do we measure 21st century learning?" Proper assessment of student progress in acquiring and applying 21st century content knowledge and skills is critical, P21 concludes.

The report describes developments in assessing these content areas and skills, discusses assessments now in development, outlines key principles, and makes recommendations for making these assessments a more prominent part of education in the United States. It also includes an appendix that defines key terms and concepts in the field of measurement.

P21 calls for more effective assessment strategies for five types of knowledge and skills: global awareness; civic engagement; financial proficiency, economic acumen, and business literacy. To acquire knowledge and skills in these areas, students must have thinking, problem-solving, interpersonal, and self-directional learning skills, according to P21; students also require ICT learning skills.

The report notes recent U.S. Government Accounting Office estimates that spending on assessment development is expected to reach $3.9 billion by 2010. This investment must focus not merely on fulfilling federal requirements for assessment of core competencies such as math, language arts, social studies, and sciences, but must also focus on effectively preparing today’s children to face the challenges of tomorrow’s complex workplaces and communities, the report says.

The United States, according to P21, will require assessment tools to measure student mastery of 21st century skills, to diagnose where students require intervention in terms of those skills, and to measure the educational system’s effectiveness in teaching those skills. The report also calls for tools that permit students to demonstrate their proficiency in 21st century skills to educational institutions and prospective employers. Current high-stakes assessments, according to the report, "do not generate evidence of the skill sets that the business and education communities believe will ensure success in the 21st century."

P21 researchers also point out that no single assessment tool will accomplish all these objectives. "A diverse menu of assessment tools should be made available," the report says. At the press conference, Margaret Honey, a special advisor to P21, said testing for the core competencies, for example, is still essential, adding that it must be integrated with other testing models to measure 21st century skills.

"Nobody would disagree: Core competencies are essential. Kids can’t interpret information on the web if they can’t read. What we’re pushing for in this report–something that we’re beginning to see signs of–are different kinds of initiatives tightly coupled with [the existing system for assessing core competencies], wherein assessment and learning are well-integrated in a thoughtful, successful way."



P21 notes that technology should be integrated into assessment tools to measure these skills effectively. Karen Cator, director of education leadership and development for Apple, said it is "fairly obvious" that technology is needed to address the skills of the new century.

"Access to technology is important," Cator continued. "It’s important to understand how technology can support the assessment, utilizing tools and feedback to access the features of the assessment."

But the bulk of the report, as its title implies, is spent sketching the current state of assessment for 21st century skills.

For each of the five desired content-knowledge and skill sets, researchers say successful assessments are those that focus on the application of a skill as opposed to retention or "discreet knowledge" of a subject.

The report also establishes that governments throughout the world have reached "a broad consensus that ICT literacy must be treated as one of the core skill areas to be addressed by national education systems in the new century."

"The language of this consensus," P21 researchers say, "indicates that ICT literacy’s elevation to centrality in national curricula has been fueled, in part, by a new understanding of ICT as a domain within which students can develop and display the kinds of high-order thinking skills that education authorities are seeking to foster in students."

The report identifies a growing interest in developing assessments that can "capture students’ higher-order thinking with technology both in the sense of (a) creating assessments that reveal the cognitive skills students employ in conjunction with their use of technology, and (b) using technology as a means of delivering such assessments."

Besides the British QCA, the P21 report cites several other examples of what researchers have identified as outstanding assessment strategies for measuring each of the different content and skill categories deemed important to future success. But researchers ultimately found that "the majority of assessment instruments currently in widespread use were not designed to target 21st century skills, and there is a great deal of work to be done if we are to transform the assessment landscape."

Still, the report finds that the movement to foster 21st century skills and content learning and to develop means to measure these abilities is emerging. It says 12 American states are developing global awareness assessments. Nineteen have some civic-skills testing, 11 of which have tied the testing to accountability measures.

"The importance of economics education, in particular, has been recognized on the federal level with the passage of the Excellence in Economics Education Act, a component of NCLB," researchers note.



P21 recommends that education leaders articulate and build a national consensus around the assessment of 21st century skills, an effort it notes is under way to some extent on both the state and federal levels. The report also calls for implementing "a policy that supports a broad vision for the adoption of assessments of 21st century skills." It says administrators and educators are reluctant to call for more assessment when it requires more time out of the instructional day.

"Presenting educators with a clear vision that outlines the benefits, diagnostic role, and the integration of such assessments within the educational system would help address this issue," the report says.

At the press conference, Apple’s Cator called on the federal government to initiate the research and development necessary to create measurements for cognitively complex and real-world assessment tasks. "The federal government could take the lead in establishing such an infrastructure to alleviate states of the burden of developing additional assessments," she said.

The report calls for support in the private and public sectors "to create viable production and distribution networks for assessment instruments and tools that measure 21st century skills." It also challenges every state to adopt an assessment system that incorporates these skills by 2010.

"This instrument or set of instruments should be designed to generate both trend and pattern data needed to direct policy and administrative decisions, as well as instructionally relevant, real-time student and classroom data needed to differentiate and strengthen classroom instruction," the report says.

To further the group’s cause, P21 simultaneously released a new web-based tool, Assess 21. Assess 21 is designed to be "a repository for information on assessments of 21st century skills."

The tool is a searchable database containing information about assessments created to measure these skills. It also can be used to identify gaps in assessing the skills researchers have identified as necessary for future success. Assess 21 currently contains information found as the study was being carried out, but the partnership wants developers of assessment tools to provide information about new assessments as they are created.


Partnership for 21st Century Skills

Assess21: A database of 21st Century Skills Assessments

Key Stage 3 ICT Literacy Assessment

Cisco Systems Inc.

National Education Association

Ford Motor Company Fund

Apple Computer Inc.

American Association of School Librarians

Dell Inc.


eSchool News Staff

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