Assessing 21st century skills

Most international skills assessments look at traditional subjects like numeracy and literacy. Esther Care is involved in an international project to assess new competencies.

Pupils using tablets in classFor anyone who thinks that learning should be a sufficient reward in its own right, and that one should not need an external signpost of achievement, it is unfortunate for assessment to be regarded as a system-level driver for teaching and learning. In a halcyon world, the teacher and the school will take satisfaction from optimising student outcomes, and the students themselves will strive to learn in order to understand the world and their place in it.

Examples of this approach do exist. But it is at the system level that the focus on assessment results is used to drive effort, performance and direction. There are obvious fallacies in judging political or governance systems on the basis of student achievement. Changes in the human condition take a long time. Student performance under one government is unlikely to reflect the policies of that government, but rather the one before, or the one before that. Despite such issues, assessment outcomes are used widely by governments to define performance and then to drive changes in education systems, at jurisdiction, school and teacher level.

In the Assessment and Teaching of  21st Century Skills (ATC21STM) project – a collaborative effort between three technology companies, Cisco, Intel and Microsoft; participating countries Australia, Singapore, the Netherlands, Finland, the US, and Costa Rica; and the University of Melbourne in Australia – the use of assessment was adopted as a tool as well as a political driver. ATC21STM  is not concerned with global standards or relative national rankings; it is concerned with making 21st century skills explicit in order to provide teachers with information that will guide their teaching of them.

In order to make the skills explicit, a major research effort needed to be undertaken; in order to provide teachers with information and encourage them to teach the skills, the education systems in which they function needed to endorse and drive the effort. Assessment therefore played two roles in the project – a functional one for the classroom level, and a political one at the national level. In the first role, the design and development of assessment tasks require an intensive research effort focused on identifying the nature of the skills, and how these can be described at increasing levels of sophistication.

In order to accomplish this, the nature of the skills needs to be well understood. Where skills are only recently acknowledged, the common understanding of them is fuzzy, which makes it difficult for schools and teachers to identify ways of teaching them. In contrast, the majority of international large-scale assessment programmes rely on enabling skills such as literacy and numeracy which are relatively well understood internationally, making it easier for education systems to promote their enhancement through local teaching and assessment.

Unlike most large-scale assessment initiatives, that serve only to provide comparative information across nations and systems, ATC21STM  promotes the use of assessment data by teachers in their work. To reach this goal, the research team undertook a serious academic and educational endeavour to define the skills of interest, to identify how students might differ in their levels of capability, and to design assessment approaches that would generate information usable by teachers (Griffin, Care & McGaw, 2012).

For the second role, participating countries were engaged at government and system level in order to use the lever of political assessment to drive the teaching of 21st century skills in their classrooms. For significant and sustainable change to occur, there must be action at the system level, in the curriculum, in assessment, and in teaching. Accordingly, ATC21STM  took action in all these settings.

The logic of the approach is this: governments value student assessment results as a tangible indication of the effectiveness of government policy. This means that results have to keep improving. So the government places increasing pressure on schools and teachers to meet this requirement. Teachers and students also value this improvement, so efforts are turned to studies that will provide evidence for the improvement required by government. There are obviously undesirable and negative consequences of such an approach, as has been seen in several countries such as Australia (Care, Griffin, Zhang & Hutchinson, in press), the US (Springer, 2008), and Canada (Volante & Ben Jaafar, 2008). Even so, we  took the view that this strategy could be used for good, and that a global assessment initiative would stimulate the introduction of enabling skills other than literacy and numeracy into the classroom.

The ATC21STM  perspective was based on stated concerns by industry, including technology companies, that graduates entering the workforce did not have the skills required to perform on the job. Changing workplace demands (Autor, Levy & Murnane, 2003) mean that the need for human performance of routine, repetitive tasks has diminished. Workers need increasingly sophisticated and complex problem-solving and coordinating skills. These are characteristically listed as 21st century skills, along with others such as creativity, innovation and collaboration. They are not, of course, unique to the current century but they may certainly be more prominent than previously, while others, such as digital and media literacies, were previously unknown.

There is no doubt that in many parts of the world, education and work have changed and that these 21st century skills are required for students and workers to function effectively. Given the prime justification for education, to lead our youth out into the world equipped to cope with its vagaries and to manage its resources, it is important that our education systems adapt to incorporate these new survival strategies and skills. Many countries have reformed their education mission statements and their curricula to reflect this reality, including some of the ATC21STM  partners such as Australia and Singapore. ATC21STM  has been one mechanism for showing that new skills can be assessed and, as we will hopefully see in years to come, can be taught and learnt. 

Dr Esther Care is Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the Assessment Research Centre, University of Melbourne, Australia.

  1. Autor, D., Levy, F., & Murnane, R. (2003). The skill content of recent technological change: an empirical exploration. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(4), 1279–1333.
  2. Care, E., Griffin, P., Zhang, Z., & Hutchinson, D. (in press). Large-scale testing and its contribution to learning. In C. Wyatt-Smith, V. Klenowski, & P. Colbert (Eds.), The Enabling Power of Assessment. Dordrecht: Springer.
  3. Griffin, P., Care, E., & McGaw, B. (2012). The Changing Role of Education and Schools. In P. Griffin, B. McGaw, & E. Care (Eds.), Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (pp. 1–15). Dordrecht: Springer.
  4. Springer, M. G. (2008). The influence of an NCLB accountability plan on the distribution of student test score gains. Economics of Education Review, 27(5), 556–563.
  5. Volante, L. & Ben Jaafar, S. (2008). Profiles of education assessment systems worldwide: Educational assessment in Canada. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 15(2), 201–210.

Share this page