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When ninth-graders at St. Andrew's School, a private boarding school in Middletown, Delaware, sat down last year to take the school's College Work and Readiness Assessment (CWRA), they faced the sort of problems that often stump city officials and administrators, but rarely show up on standardized tests, such as how to manage traffic congestion caused by population growth. "I proposed a new transportation system for the city," said one student describing his answer. "It's expensive, but it will cut pollution."
Students were given research reports, budgets, and other documents to help draft their answers, and they were expected to demonstrate proficiency in subjects like reading and math as well as mastery of broader and more sophisticated skills like evaluating and analyzing information and thinking creatively about how to apply information to real-world problems.
Not many public school students take assessments like the CWRA. Instead, most students take tests that are primarily multiple-choice measures of lower-level skills in reading and math, such as the ability to recall or restate facts from reading passages and to handle arithmetic-based questions in math. These types of tests are useful for meeting the proficiency goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and state accountability systems. But leaders in business, government, and higher education are increasingly emphatic in saying that such tests don’t do enough. The intellectual demands of 21st century work, today's leaders say, require assessments that measure more advanced skills, 21st century skills. Today, they say, college students, workers, and citizens must be able to solve multifaceted problems by thinking creatively and generating original ideas from multiple sources of information—and tests must measure students' capacity to do such work.
While many policymakers, including Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, have emphasized the need for schools to, first and foremost, teach the basics, learning science—an interdisciplinary field that includes cognitive science, educational psychology, information science, and neuroscience—suggests that the best learning occurs when basic skills are taught in combination with complex thinking skills. Decades of research reveals that there is, in fact, no reason to separate the acquisition of learning core content and basic skills like reading and computation from more advanced analytical and thinking skills, even in the earliest grades.
But standing in the way of incorporating 21st century skills into teaching and learning are widespread concerns about measurement. The cost, time demands, and difficulty in scoring tests of these less easily quantified skills have slowed the adoption of such tests, as have concerns among civil rights advocates that these tests would erode progress toward ensuring common standards of learning for all students. Collectively, these concerns derailed efforts in the late 1990s to move toward the use of performance-based assessments such as portfolios, exhibitions, and projects.
New assessments like the CWRA, however, illustrate that the skills that really matter for the 21st century—the ability to think creatively and to evaluate and analyze information—can be measured accurately and in a common and comparable way. These emergent models also demonstrate the potential to measure these complex thinking skills at the same time that we measure a student's mastery of core content or basic skills and knowledge. There is, then, no need for more tests to measure advanced skills. Rather, there is a need for better tests that measure more of the skills students' need to succeed today.
This report was funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Education Sector thanks the foundation for their support. The views expressed in the paper are those of the author alone.
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