Now is the time to equip and empower educators to assess 21st century skills and mindsets
By Shannon King, PhD
I have always been an assessment nerd, and proud of it.
From the very beginning of my career, using assessment data was like turning a light on inside a dark room…I had no idea how to plan without it. Fast forward to today. I’m still an assessment nerd, and believe it is essential to use assessment data to plan learning experiences for students. Especially right now. A global pandemic is causing us to rethink tests, grades, and so many other aspects of our existing assessment structures. This moment in time is giving educators the opportunity to rethink assessment and it could be a strong driver for positive change in education.
One thing that is more important than ever in our current COVID-19 context: getting clear about the purpose of the assessment data we’re collecting. When time is precious and distributed learning environments are the norm, we must think differently about our approach to assessment.
This past summer, I had the honor of collaborating with a cohort of dedicated educators through Assessment21, a six-week professional learning experience that equips and empowers educators with relevant professional learning for assessing 21st century skills and mindsets. The experience helped us explore how we move beyond the old school mentality of a standardized approach to testing and understand the competencies necessary for thriving in our 21st century world.
As the Assessment21 summer cohort explored how to design experiences that nurture and assess deeper learning, I thought it would be useful to shine a light on four big ideas that have emerged from years of experience in assessing for deeper learning—ideas that are even more practical and relevant as we enter the historic 2020 school year.
Big Idea 1: Testing is an event. Assessment is a process.
The line between learning experience and assessment experience is very fuzzy. And in all honesty, it doesn’t matter that much, especially now. The goal should be that students are learning and the moments when we pause to check in should be about them, not us.
The educators I worked with this summer shared the many ways they engage students in experiences that deepen understanding and provide valuable assessment data. And, as students and teachers get more comfortable learning together in a wider variety of environments, this understanding of assessment as a process is significant.
A high school art teacher explained that she incorporated student self-assessment in more deliberate ways since she was not able to interact with students as often as she had been. She discovered it was even more powerful for students to engage in ongoing cycles of feedback and revision as an assessment process because it became less about her evaluation and more about their own perspective on their growth as artists.
Big Idea 2: Assessing deeper learning cannot be done in a vacuum.
Educators need to assess both academic content and 21st century competencies. The approaches we take to assess competencies like creativity or collaboration are not always as straightforward as the tools we use to measure the development of literacy or numeracy skills.
In order to maximize every moment of time with our students, our assessment approaches need to be focused and efficient.
One of the educators I worked with this summer told me that the templates and processes in Assessment21 showed him a purposeful way to plan for authentic assessment experiences that bring out the 21st century skills often already found in content standards. His district always encouraged teachers to design authentic assessment experiences, which resulted in fun, engaging experiences, but this method didn’t fully capture or assess the core academic content. The Assessment21 experience helped them realize that it doesn’t have to be either/or. You can design for both.
There are no easy answers to the question: How do I assess deeper learning? But there are intentional and systematic approaches to developing, tuning, and calibrating assessment experiences that support educators in developing a more reliable approach to this nuanced and complex challenge. Assessment21 is designed to explore those methods and support educators in adapting their current units of study to implement new and innovative practices.
Big Idea 3: Assessment for deeper learning promotes transfer.
Competencies like critical thinking or self-directedness are not things that we want to assess with a “memorize and regurgitate” approach and frankly, today, there’s no time for that any way.
We want students to be able to use such experiences to solve problems, grapple with complex questions, and navigate the lives they are leading right now. To achieve that goal, we need to design our learning experiences and the embedded assessment opportunities in such a way that we’re asking students to think conceptually so they can use the information they’ve learned in new or novel contexts.
We need the learning to transfer.
An assistant superintendent from this summer’s Assessment21 cohort said it best, “In this current reality, we’re tired of giving tests. We need to engage students more. When we think about how to design engaging experiences that promote transfer, we need to support our teachers in being more intentional about how to backwards design their competencies into their deeper learning assessments.”
I couldn’t agree more. This is essential today when uncertainty is pervasive and both teachers and students need to be prepared for both in-person and online learning.
Big Idea 4: Students are important stakeholders in the assessment process—now more than ever.
While our students may not be sitting directly in front of us inside our classrooms, they remain important stakeholders in the assessment process.
Afterall, students are the ones who decide, as a result of an assessment experience, if they will keep learning or if they will give up. Their motivation is a powerful factor in engagement, and in distance learning environments, engagement must be a priority.
In creating assessment for deeper learning, there is opportunity to support students in developing the capacity to be metacognitive and self-directed—qualities that are critical when they are in extended periods of learning in online environments. As we design assessment experiences that are truly valuable now, we need to infuse opportunities for students to self-reflect, self-assess, and share their learning with authentic audiences. By the way, how cool is it that students can leverage technology to connect with a wider variety of audiences than ever before? The space created by our current circumstances could really generate amazing learning possibilities for students, when we let it.
And finally, I’d like to perhaps shine the brightest light on this certainty: we are all learners. Keeping our learner’s mindset is so important as we imagine and reimagine what’s possible in today’s learning environments. It is the perfect time to ask, “What if...?” and say, “Why not?” as we navigate a new assessment landscape. We’re here to help. Assessment21 is a professional learning experience designed so that teachers, principals, and other system leaders can participate in the kind of deeper learning and assessment that every student needs in the 21st century.