21st Century Assessments

I am doing a presentation on this topic at EdTech 2008. I’ve spent a lot of time considering 21st century skills but haven’t ever formally organized on the topic. So here’s some stream of conscious thinking: sort of what popped into my mind first.

Defining The Subject

I got it wrong (as usual). I was thinking I would be talking about how to integrate 21st century assessments in the classroom. Alternatives to writing another report, which we learned in Frontline’s Growing Up Online, is probably plagiarized. But, at the Partnership for 21st Century Skills website, it’s more about how to assess 21st century skills. They tend to point towards tests. But I’m wondering if the two ways of coming at assessment could work together: the way to assess 21st century skills is by incorporating 21st century assessments.

So, what’s a 21st century assessments? (Don’t you like how I managed to justify talking about what I wanted to talk about?) Here’s Tuttle’s (2007) suggestion:

Effective 21st century assessment reaches beyond traditional testing to look at the broader accomplishments of learners. Assembling an e-portfolio, or electronic portfolio, is an excellent method for assessing students’ progress toward school, state, or national academic standards, as well as 21st century skills. An electronic portfolio is a purposefully limited collection of student selected work over time that documents progress toward meeting the standards. Work may be collected over a semester, a year, or even several years, passing from one grade level and teacher to the next. E-portfolios reflect more in-depth, more comprehensive, and better thought-out evidence of student learning than on-demand tests. For instance, a student’s three-hour state benchmark essay offers the feedback of a 5/6 score, while an e-portfolio allows students to document the many aspects of their essay writing improvement over the course of a year.

Excellent: eportfolios cover a whole host of the 21st century skills. Of course, portfolios were available in the 20th century, too; my high school collected student work over the course of middle school and high school. But it was haphazard to say the least, boxes of folders that had to be divided each year, with no way to get them to kids who left over the summer, etc. Digital is definitely better, pushing this into the 21st century category. Plus, if we’re incorporating the ICT skills, our kids should be creating digital artifacts that will fit nicely into those portfolios. (Although I’d like to put in a plug for having kids make “real” things out of shoe boxes or cereal cartons at least every now and then. I still remember fondly the model of the train from The Great Train Robbery that I made in 9th grade. Then, I could create the digital tour of my train to post to my portfolio. Aaah…now, I think I’m getting the hang of developing 21st century assessments.)

So, we’ve covered the core content, ICT, as well as things like self-reflection and taking ownership. Maybe even creativity and communication.

20th Century Skills

There are a few skills that were definitely 20th century expectations, too. Things like punctuality and personal responsibility. My K-12 career happened during the 20th century, and I often sat with mothers of middle schoolers scheming about how to help them develop more initiative, self direction, productivity and personal accountability, to use their 21st century names. In fact, if you looked at my grading system, some of it at least was an attempt to encourage these skills: I gave a homework grade. I gave a notebook grade. I took off points when you failed to meet a project deadline. If you looked at my plan book, some of it was an attempt to encourage these skills: built in check points for students to engage in self reflection about their work, explicit instruction in notetaking and organization, and, right at the end of my classroom time, using technology to communicate.

Leadership Skills

I am most intrigued by the Life and Career Skills. As I mentioned, a lot of them were 20th century expectations that seem to have taken on an urgency as we move into the 21st century. Others seem to be more about the kinds of skills kids develop when they participate in after school activities. Taken together, I think they represen a roadmap for leadership. And, the question in K-12 becomes the same question in graduate school: can we teach people to be leaders?

The Easy Ones

I think the 21st century skills we have at least started to figure out are the Information, Media and Technology skills. Why? Because they have 20th century counterparts. And they can be taught in isolation. The librarian, now the media specialist, has always taught information skills. Media literacy has often been a part of the language arts curriculum. Even technology. It overlaps a lot with information literacy; it’s about accessing information, so in my day the technology was the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature.

And, it’s about using technology to organize knowledge and information. I think that’s the biggie here. We didn’t have so many choices for organizing our knowledge: write a report, make a poster, maybe do something creative like a song or poem. I can still do all those things but add the collaborative, network-based component as well as the access to materials and easy publishing for sharing that knowledge and we’re into the realm of the 21st century.

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