Vinson Logo


Rotate Your Device

21st Century Skills Need 21st Century Assessments, Says Brookings Institution Research

Michael Nutter

December 12, 2018

Educators must reevaluate their approaches to assessment as they spend more time helping students develop “21st century skills.”

In 2013, researchers at Oxford University estimated that “47 percent of U.S. workers have a high probability of seeing their jobs automated over the next 20 years.” A report published by the McKinsey Global Institute late last year took a slightly less alarmist stance, but still predicted that 30 percent of all “work activities” could be automated by 2030.

Regardless of which forecast proves to be more accurate, it has become manifestly clear that the maturation of technologies like artificial intelligence and advanced robotics will have a profound impact on the American workforce in the very near future.

As these changes unfold, it will become hugely important for K-12 schools to help students develop the skills they’ll need to succeed in tomorrow’s workplaces. Foremost among these “21st century skills” are things like critical thinking, creativity, advanced problem solving, interpersonal communication, collaboration, and socio-emotional sensitivity. These are all distinctly human skills, and are therefore the kind of skills that will guarantee students’ economic utility in the age of automation.

However, as a recent report published by the Brookings Institution argues, “The complex nature of 21st century skills requires complex assessment tools that might not lend themselves easily to the restrictions of [traditional] large scale assessment.” In other words, as 21st century skills take center stage, educators must develop “21st century assessments” with which to gauge students’ progress.

Traditional Assessments May No Longer Do the Trick

Most traditional assessments — especially summative assessments — are designed to be a snapshot of a student’s aptitude at a moment in time. Insofar as such assessments fairly accurately capture the extent to which a student has developed the building blocks of success in a particular subject area, they are reasonably indicative of the student’s progress.

For instance, as they learn to read, an early elementary school student should be able to start identifying and responding to major characters and events in a text. As they transition into middle school, the student should be able to recognize concrete symbols in a text and grasp their relationship to the text as a whole and to specific characters and events. Once in high school, the student should be able to identify abstract symbols in a text and use them to draw nuanced thematic parallels to other texts. Generally speaking, the student’s positioning as it pertains to these benchmarks can be evaluated on a rolling basis by administering a battery of traditional reading comprehension assessments.

According to the Brookings Institution research, applying a similar assessment model to 21st century skills is something of a fool’s errand, first and foremost because experts have yet to identify clear developmental pathways for these inherently complex aptitudes. As the report muses, “What are the subskills that are needed for collaboration? What does a basic level of collaboration look like? What about more complex forms of collaboration?”

The report’s authors readily admit they don’t yet have the answers — nor, they argue, does anyone else. That said, thanks to the proliferation of digital technology in the classroom, educators already have access to a number of tools that facilitate more advanced — and, until recently, impossible to execute at scale — assessments involving techniques like item response theory and structural equation modeling.

For example, the ongoing ATC21S assessment project gathers and analyzes data on how students engage with a “digital problem space” — their mouse movements, the number of times they click on various items, the time it takes for them to complete each problem, etc. While this approach to assessment doesn’t generate a straightforward  “number correct/number incorrect” output like a traditional assessment, it does a better job of capturing students’ progress in their development of complex, 21st century skills.

Supporting a 21st Century Assessment Infrastructure

While the precise contours of a comprehensive 21st century assessment regime remain largely unsettled, what’s clear is that educational authorities around the world have recognized the importance of exploring ways to teach — and evaluate — 21st century skills.

In fact, of the more than 150 countries the Brookings Institution surveyed, 76 percent identified “21st century skills” by name in their national education policy documents. As one might expect, however, only 17 countries’ policy documents included specific developmental progressions pertaining to these skills.

Here at home, building a robust 21st century skills infrastructure will require a not insignificant amount of effort and investment. While many of today’s educators possess 21st century skills, few have been formally trained to teach them. As such, as the Brookings Institution report concludes, “A major…professional development need is to build the capacity of teachers to teach and assess 21st century skills.”

To support such reskilling, school districts must ensure they secure the maximum amount of funding to which they’re entitled — which is where Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform comes into play. CheckPoint streamlines a district’s data collecting, organizing, and validating processes, guaranteeing the records it submits to local, state, and federal funding authorities are always complete and accurate.

As school districts continue to navigate the at once exciting and frightening period of transition in which we find ourselves, flexibility — especially in terms of funding — will be of the utmost importance. With CheckPoint, educators can rest easy knowing they’ll have access to the resources they need to prepare today’s students for success in tomorrow’s highly automated workplaces.

get in touch