Putting our ideas of assessment to the test


How we evaluate students, and teachers, is at a crossroads.
How we evaluate students, and teachers, is at a crossroads.


Default Lines column, October 2010 issue of eSchool News—Here’s a pop quiz: What are the skills that today’s students will need to be successful in tomorrow’s workplace?

The answer to this question has enormous implications for the future of education, including what we teach our students—and how we test them.

According to an Associated Press story published on Labor Day, economists fear that many people will be left behind even when this historically bleak job market begins to turn around.

As our economy continues its shift from a manufacturing-driven economy to one fueled by service industries, the number of lower-skill, middle-income jobs will shrink, AP reports. Any job that can be automated or outsourced overseas will continue to decline.

Of the 8 million-plus jobs lost to the recession—in fields such as manufacturing, real estate, and financial services—many aren’t coming back, economists warn. In their place will be jobs in professions like health care, information technology, and statistical analysis—and most of these new positions will require complex skills or higher education.

The AP story validates a theme common to many advocates of education reform.

In his best-selling book A Whole New Mind, author Dan Pink writes: “Thanks to an array of forces—[including] globalization that is shipping white-collar work overseas, and powerful technologies that are eliminating certain kinds of work altogether—we are entering a new age.” Pink argues that right-brain skills such as creativity, innovation, collaboration, and empathy are what will distinguish the workers in this new age and allow them to succeed.

Education consultant Alan November agrees. During the Florida Education Technology Conference earlier this year, November said he was talking with a senior executive at a global investment bank recently, and he asked the executive: What is the most important skill for today’s students to learn so they are prepared to succeed in the new global economy?

To his surprise, the executive replied: “Empathy”—the ability to understand and respect different points of view.

Most of today’s companies do business with customers all over the world, November explained, and several also have branches in multiple countries. Chances are good that when students enter the workforce, they’ll be working with—or doing business with—someone from another nation, with its own culture and its own unique perspective, at some point in their career.

It’s not hard to find people who are smart, the executive told November. What is hard to find are employees who have to ability to empathize with, and be sensitive to the needs of, people from other countries. (See “Four things every student should learn … but not every school is teaching.”)

I don’t mean to imply that traditional areas of learning aren’t important. But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that these don’t go far enough in preparing students for the new challenges that await them when they graduate.

So, if it’s true that our economy is changing, and that the skills that will define success in this new economy are changing as well, shouldn’t we be rethinking the skills we’re teaching students—and the abilities we’re testing them on?

That’s what the federal government is encouraging states to do with $330 million in new Race to the Top grants, as we report here. Two large coalitions of states have won grants to design new exams that (1) are better able to assess important 21st-century skills, and (2) are aligned with the Common Core standards that the Obama administration also is pushing.

Because these projects are in their early stages, it’s too early to tell how effective they’ll be in meeting the need for a new generation of assessments. But educators will be watching closely to see how these experiments fare.

Whatever their outcome might be, it’s bound to be controversial, as change often is. Take Oregon’s experience, for instance. In this story, we report on how a decision by the Oregon Department of Education to let students use a computer spell-check feature when taking an online version of the state’s writing exam has raised concerns among stakeholders, prompting a larger discussion about the skills students should be tested on in the digital age.

State officials say the controversial move comes after consulting with local school systems and ed-tech experts, and they argue that it’s a natural evolution that more accurately reflects how students compose essays today. To some critics, however, the decision spells the end of society as we know it.

Oregon’s decision is the latest response to an increasingly important question in education: With such powerful technology now at our fingertips, do we really need a command of all the facts—or do we need to know how to call up those facts when we want them?

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Dennis Pierce

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