Updating Educational Assessments to Measure “21st Century Skills”

Posted by Michael Golden 
Corporate Vice President, Education Products Group

As educators, policy makers and business leaders gather in Washington, D.C., this week for the National Education Computing Conference, there will be a lot of talk about the need to equip students with “21st century skills.”

But what exactly are “21st century skills”?  And, more importantly, how are we measuring them, and how are we ensuring that teachers and schools around the world are providing students with the tools necessary to succeed in the economy of today and tomorrow?

At the highest level, 21st century skills encompass everything that students need to succeed in our competitive and increasingly complex world.  Technology skills obviously fall under that umbrella, along with traditional priorities such as math, science and communication. But increasingly other skills are being recognized as critical to 21st century success, including “right brain” skills such as creativity and critical thinking, as described in Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind.   Other prerequisites include problem solving, collaboration, time management and self-direction, as advocated by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

Extensive data show that the education systems of today have not kept pace with the changing needs of the economy at large. A major obstacle to change has been the use of traditional assessments that are inadequate to measure the acquisition of 21st century skills. In a series of speeches this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called for school reforms to be monitored and judged by results that can be backed up by research proving their effectiveness. Secretary Duncan has also called for the creation of rigorous national assessments linked to the internationally-benchmarked, common standards being developed by various states.

Educators and policy makers agree that formative, continuous and summative assessments are critical to improve student success and learning. With so much depending on the development of 21st century skills and so much investment by the public and private sector into the development of those skills, it’s critical to have viable and effective global assessments in place. Ultimately, an internationally accepted way to measure 21st century skills will drive consistency in what is taught in schools worldwide.

This week Microsoft, the Education Commission of the States (ECS) and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), supported by Cisco Systems Inc., are bringing together state and global education leaders at the Global Education Competitiveness Summit to help focus attention on assessments and international benchmarks. 

In addition, earlier this year, we launched a collaborative effort with Cisco and Intel aimed at transforming global educational assessment and improving learning outcomes. As part of this effort, we are in the process of underwriting a multi-sector research project to develop new assessment approaches, methods and technologies for measuring the success of 21st-century teaching and learning in classrooms around the world. In the last month, the project has gained momentum and five countries – Australia, Finland, Portugal, Singapore and the United Kingdom– have joined as founder countries of the project, led by Professor Barry McGaw at the University of Melbourne.

We are committed to supporting this effort around the world, working with our education partners, government officials and policy experts to create a new standard for educational assessment that helps us ensure that students are keeping pace with the needs of today’s world.


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