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21st Century Skills Assessment

A Partnership for 21st Century Skills e-paper

Why do we need assessments of 21st century skills?

Student assessment, whether by standardized tests or classroom-based measures,
is a cornerstone of effective teaching and learning. Taken as a whole, good
assessments can not only provide a reliable and valid measure of a students
learning and understanding, but also help guide both teachers and students on a
day-to-day basis.
Over the past two decades, assessment has played a central role in education
policy in the United States, as it has in other countries for many decades. Largescale, summative assessments, for example, are viewed as powerful levers for
influencing what happens in schools and classrooms, and as such, assessment
studies are routinely carried out to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of
students. Furthermore, with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001,
testing has become not only more routine but also increasingly influential and
focused on core content domains. Results from large-scale summative
assessments, along with other measures of achievement, are regularly used to
determine whether students can advance to the next grade, and to judge the
quality of schools and the educators who work in them.
In recent years, educators, business leaders, and policymakers in the U.S. have
questioned whether the current design of assessment systems focuses too much on
measuring students ability to recall discrete facts using multiple choice tests at the
cost of not adequately measuring a students ability to engage in and complete
complex thinking and problem-solving tasks. Outside observers of the U.S. school
system have been quick to note potential shortcomings, claiming that narrowly
focused high-stakes assessment systems produce at best only illusory student gains
(Ridgeway, McCusker and Pead 2004). The end result is a widening gap between
the knowledge and skills students are acquiring in schools and the knowledge and
skills needed to succeed in the increasingly global, technology-infused 21st century
workplace. While the current assessment landscape is replete with assessments
that measure knowledge of core content areas such as language arts, mathematics,
science and social studies, there is a comparative lack of assessments and analyses
focused on 21st century skills. Current tests fall short in several key ways:

The tests are not designed to gauge how well students apply what they know
to new situations or evaluate how students might use technologies to solve
problems or communicate ideas.

While teachers and schools are being asked to modify their practice based on
standardized test data, the tests are not designed to help teachers make
decisions about how to target their daily instruction.

Current testing systems are rarely designed to measure a school or districts

contribution to learning from a students first day until his or her last day.

Meeting the demands of todays world requires a shift in assessment strategies to

measure the skills now prized in a complex global environment. The Partnership for
21st Century Skills believes that such a shift is vital to the widespread adoption of
21st century skills in our schools. We must move from primarily measuring discrete
knowledge to measuring students ability to think critically, examine problems,
gather information, and make informed, reasoned decisions while using technology.
In addition to posing real world challenges, such assessments should accept a
range of solutions to a task. For example, one possible assessment of 21st century
skills would focus more on a students operational skills, such as her expertise in
using multiple sources appropriately and efficiently, rather than on whether or not a
correct response was submitted.
With spending on assessment development in the U.S. alone is expected to grow
into the billions of dollars this decade, it is vital that our investment focuses not
merely on fulfilling federal requirements, but on preparing todays children to face
the challenges of tomorrows complex communities and workplaces.
How are summative and formative assessments different from one another
and can they both support 21st century skills?
Assessments of 21st century skills, like assessments in general, fall under two broad
categories: summative and formative. All educators should be familiar with
summative tests, one common example being the National Assessment of
Educational Progress (NAEP) tests for reading, mathematics, science, writing, U.S.
history, civics, geography, and the arts. There also are summative classroom
assessments that, compared to the NAEP assessments, are administered more
narrowly and more frequently. Ideally, summative assessments of 21st century
skills should be given at the end of an instructional unit and provide accountability
as well as a measure of how schools, districts, and states are progressing in terms
of achieving 21st century skill competency in their students.
Formative assessment, by contrast, is a process that occurs during instruction using
activities that range from a performance task, to a thoughtful and thorough (though
not necessarily long) conversation between teacher and student. The Partnership
for 21st Century Skills believes formative assessments, along with summative
assessments, should be part of any school or districts overall assessment strategy
because they are integrally tied to teaching and learning. Consider the benefits of
formative assessments:
Instead of merely checking students achievement, effective formative
assessments can actually enhance it. During the formative assessment, the
Copyright 2007, Partnership for 21st Century Skills
All rights reserved. Last revised 10.14.07.

focus is on making a students thought processes visible, so that a teacher

can adapt teaching strategies to better meet students needs. Black and
Wiliam (1998) explain it in this way: [An] assessment becomes formative
assessment when the evidence is actually used to adapt teaching to meet
student needs.

Good formative tests clearly define the learning goals of an instructional unit,
and invite students to model their behaviors to fit those criteria and to
become more informed about themselves.

As students become more aware of what and how they are learning, they
become more motivated. Hence educators need to build assessments for
learning, rather than assessments of learning. (Stiggins and Chappuis, 2006;
Quellmalz and Kozma, 2003).

Education experts recommend a balanced approach to using formative and

summative assessments and advocate that both types are important in order to
optimize teaching and learning. Assessment must be seen both as an instructional
tool for use while learning is occurring (formative), and as an accountability tool to
determine if learning has occurred (summative). Both functions are important and
should be used in concert in the classroom. An example of this concept in practice
is the Wisconsin Department of Public Instructions Balanced Assessment System,
which comprises a continuum of assessments that includes formative, interim, and
large-scale testing varieties. Formative tests are used within and between lessons
to help educators determine next steps in a lesson; interim benchmark
assessments are given within and between instructional units to identify strengths
and gaps in instruction and curriculum; and large-scale assessments are
administered annually or bi-annually to measure school, district, and/or state

What are the characteristics of an effective summative assessment of 21st

century skills?
The primary goal of summative assessments is to determine whether the learning
that was intended actually occurred. Thus, a successful summative measure of 21st
century skills will produce data that is useful, valid, reliable, and fair so that it can
be used to inform curricular or policy decisions. Below is a list of several key
characteristics of effective summative assessments of 21st century skills.
Effective summative
assessments of 21st
century skills should:


All examples in this document are just that: individual illustrations of a particular idea or
concept. The Route 21 database contains many more examples.
Copyright 2007, Partnership for 21st Century Skills
All rights reserved. Last revised 10.14.07.

Focus on 21st century

skills and content (as
defined by the P21

21st century subject matter

includes, in addition to the
standard core subjects,
important areas of study such as
global awareness, civic literacy,
etc., and skills, such as ICT
literacy, critical thinking,
problem-solving, and life skills.

Provide useful
information about
student achievement by
measuring the
absorption and
application of higherorder concepts.

The assessment must be tied to

previously established learning
goals for the teaching unit.
Assessing unimportant or trivial
concepts is not an effective way
to assess student achievement.

Be valid.

The assessment should measure

what it is supposed to measure.
Keeping questions short, to the
point, and free of ambiguity is
one way to assure this.

Be reliable.

The assessment should provide

student scores that are not
affected by arbitrary factors. For
example, the number of items
and answer options on a test
should be high enough so that it
is unlikely that a student can get
a high score by simply guessing
The assessment must give the
same chance of success to all
students. Take-home tests that
require access to the Internet
may unfairly favor students from
higher-income families, for

Be fair.

Copyright 2007, Partnership for 21st Century Skills

All rights reserved. Last revised 10.14.07.

The K to the 8th Power

Technology Literacy
Assessment was
developed to assist
teachers and
administrators in
determining 6th, 7th,
and 8th graders level of
technology literacy. The
four-part, multiplechoice test is aligned
with NETS standards
and proficiency
The Cisco Networking
Academy Program
assessment and
curricular teams work
together to ensure that
what is included in each
assessment covers
important parts of the
curriculum and what
the instructors teach is
appropriately tested.
The Intermediate-Level
Geography Test created
by the National Council
for Geography
Education was revised
and reassessed in 2000
to ensure content
validity and reliability.
The Civic Outcomes for
Elementary School
Students assessment is
based on a set of valid
and reliable measures
of civic knowledge,
skills, attitudes, and
The UKs Key Stage 3
ICT Literacy
uses generic software
programs developed by
the QCA to provide the


Be administered widely.

This is important so that schools,

districts, states, as well as
countries can be informed as to
whether learning has taken
place. It also allows educators to
make comparisons within and
between successively larger
populations of students (class,
school, district, state, country).

same capabilities as
familiar productivity
software on the level
playing field of a nonbrand-specific platform.
The Program for
International Student
Assessment (PISA) is
an internationally
assessment that is
typically administered
to 4,500-10,000
students in each
country. Sixty-two
countries have signed
up to participate in the
4th assessment in

What are characteristics of effective formative assessments of 21st century

The primary goal of formative 21st century tests is to make student learning and
understanding readily apparent, so that a teacher can adapt teaching strategies to
better meet students needs. Thus, successful formative assessments help
educators determine their students current knowledge, understandings,
misconceptions, and thinking processes. Below is a list of several key
characteristics of effective formative assessments of 21st century skills.
Effective formative
assessment of 21st
century skills
Focus on 21st century
skills and content (as
defined by the P21

21st century subject matter includes,

in addition to the standard core
subjects, important areas of study
such as global awareness, civic
literacy, etc., and skills, such as ICT
literacy, critical thinking, problemsolving, and life skills.

The Intel Education
Assessing Projects
tool is a database of
assessments of hardto-measure 21st
century skills like
critical thinking and

All examples in this document are just that: individual illustrations of a particular idea or
concept. The Route 21 database contains many more examples.

Copyright 2007, Partnership for 21st Century Skills

All rights reserved. Last revised 10.14.07.

Make thinking visible

by revealing the kinds
of conceptual
strategies a student
uses to solve a

Complicated, multi-dimensional,
real-world solutions rarely require
mastery of a single, isolated skill or
understanding of a single subject
matter. Thus, a 21st century
assessment must be able to
measure or observe a students
mastery along several different
axes. In addition, assessing student
work using established rubrics and
checklists is important. Not all
assessments need to be formal and

mClass: Math
diagnostic software
provides insight into

Be structured so that
educators can identify
the background
knowledge a student
used to solve each
problem in real-time.

This will help measure and clarify

students knowledge-base and
procedural proficiencies.

Be largely
and authentic, calling
upon students to use
21st century skills.

Students need to hone the ability to

apply content knowledge to critical
thinking, problem solving, and
analysis tasks throughout their
education, as well as understand
that successful learning is as much
about the process as it is about facts
and figures. In addition, tasks
should mirror real-world situations
as much as possible, so that
students gain valuable training that
will prepare them for success in
their future endeavors.

IMMEX is a problemsolving assessment

software in which
students are
presented with a
problem, and can
access a palette of
menu options to
extract information to
solve the problem.
The program keeps a
record of the choices
each student makes.
Assessments offer
extended, openended tasks that
measure knowledge
and critical process
skills in Reading,
Language Arts,
Writing and
Mathematics. They
present realistic
scenarios and offer
students an
opportunity to
knowledge in unique
Princeton Reviews
assessments are

Authentic assessments use data and

performance criteria that are related
to the students projects.
Generate data that can
be used to directly
inform instructional

Evidence from formative assessment

must be used, not just collected.
Teachers need to be able to

Copyright 2007, Partnership for 21st Century Skills

All rights reserved. Last revised 10.14.07.


Aim to build capacity

both teachers and

understand what the assessment

can reveal about the students
thinking in order to adapt their
teaching to meet students needs.
By discovering the background
knowledge, integration, or
conceptual strategies that students
may not have mastered, a teacher
can identify the skills that need
further work to adjust his or her
Both teachers and students should
learn from formative assessments.
Before a lesson is concluded, these
assessments can show where
further teaching and learning is
needed, so teachers can discover
ways to help students integrate 21st
century skills and knowledge into
their learning, thereby building
pedagogical methods and student

Be part of a

21st century skills assessment must

be ongoing. Students must visualize
their thought process and how it
aligns with a strategy to solve or
complete a problem. Since students
thought constructs are continually
changing, formative assessment
should be regularly given so
students can see improvements in
their skills and strategies, as well as
knowledge transfer to parallel or
related problems.

Reflect an
understanding of
learning as
integrated, and
revealed in
performance over

Formative assessments should relay

to the student that high-quality
education involves a process of
knowledge integration, processing,
and performance. Students can then
focus on learning and integrating
21st century skills to allow them to
conceptualize and think about
problems, rather than divert focus

Copyright 2007, Partnership for 21st Century Skills

All rights reserved. Last revised 10.14.07.

designed to be
frequently and results
are reported in a
timely fashion and
include an actionable
analysis to help
teachers interpret
interactive web-based
program that provides
feedback to students
as they work through
their assignment.
Teachers can view
reports that detail
facets of their
students' thinking
about the assigned
topic and can use this
information to target
specific problem
BioLogica activities
monitor students'
performance and
collect their
investigations into
electronic portfolios
for later evaluation
and assessment. They
enable students to
progress at their own
pace, and help the
teacher to identify
"teachable moments.
The Full Option
Science System
requires that students
produce a body of
work related to their
Progress is assessed
using teacher

only to procedures and answers.

anecdotal notes,
student interviews,
and student written

How can states create and implement assessments to promote 21st century
skills in their classrooms?
Implementing an assessment of 21st century skills strategy is a challenging process
that will require effort from educators at all levels of a state. Both summative and
formative assessments need to be aimed at core subject knowledge, as well as
learning and thinking skills, 21st century content, ICT literacy, and life skills. This
will require a large commitment from your state as well as the recognition that the
implementation process will be a gradual one and will require multiple cycles of
creation, implementation, and evaluation strategies. With that in mind, it is
important to start with the following actions:
1) Create necessary standards. Guidelines and standards need to be drawn
by the state for teachers and educators to begin the process of creating
summative and formative assessments. Assessments should be made to
match the units and lessons outlined in the states reformed standards. The
standards could provide examples of assessments as well as indicate how
and when to use them. For further assistance with this, see the Standards
section on the Route 21 website.
2) Develop, implement, evaluate and improve assessments. A plan must
be created to implement the created assessments into districts, schools, and
classrooms and to evaluate their effectiveness in adjusting teacher strategies
to target students 21st century skills. In addition, the assessments must be
evaluated, in terms of their adherence to state standards, their usefulness in
improving teaching and learning, and their effective use in the classroom.
Any or all of these aspects will probably require constant adjustment and
improvement across several years before truly effective strategies for
assessment can be realized. Structured research, consultations with
assessment experts, and regular multi-level, multidisciplinary discussions
amongst stakeholders will provide a strong preliminary step towards bringing
21st century skills into the education system.
3) Align formative and summative assessments to curriculum and
instruction. In many ways, assessment drives what is taught, as schools
focus resources and time on the content and skills that are tested. Helping
teachers understand how to integrate 21st century skills within their
classroom practice and how to adjust teaching strategies accordingly is a
vital step to reforming statewide assessment strategies.

Copyright 2007, Partnership for 21st Century Skills

All rights reserved. Last revised 10.14.07.

4) Develop a professional development strategy. A professional

development initiative that will help teachers incorporate skills necessary for
using assessments of 21st century skills, especially of the formative variety,
is another important step in the process. Utilizing this assessment strategy
will likely require the development of several new skills, including assessment
creation, implementation, analysis, and teaching strategy adjustment. For
further assistance with this, see the Professional Development section on the
Route 21 website.

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professional knowledge: An examination of research on contemporary professional
development. In A. Iran-Nejad & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Review of Research in
Education (pp. 173-209). Washington, DC: American Educational Research
Practical Assessment Research and Evaluation: A peer-reviewed journal that
addresses issues of assessment.
Audio/Visual Resources
Edutopia Radio Show Archive: August 12, 2004, Authentic Assessment, Grant
Dr. Grant Wiggins, an expert in the hot topic of Assessment, will talk about
changing the way we measure student progress and authentic assessment.

Copyright 2007, Partnership for 21st Century Skills

All rights reserved. Last revised 10.14.07.