Instructing & Assessing 21st Century Skills

Research and Best Practices: Introduction to a Series on 21st Century Skills

For the full collection of related blog posts and literature reviews, see the Center for Assessment’s toolkit, Assessing 21st Century Skills.

The Center for Assessment is partnering with PBLWorks (formerly Buck Institute for Education) to provide tools and resources that schools and districts can use to collect evidence about student outcomes resulting from the implementation of Gold Standard Project Based Learning experiences. These student outcomes are not just the typical academic achievement indicators. Instead, we focus on best practices related to instructing and assessing 21st Century skills—the cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies that students need to succeed in the global workforce. We started with critical thinkingcollaborationcomplex communication, and self-direction, with plans to expand the work.

We decided to partner with PBLWorks in this venture because we are convinced that 21st Century skills are essential and valuable to student success both in school and life. However, there is limited research on how to measure these skills in classrooms. Consequently, educators often do not have the information they need on each 21st Century skill for instructional purposes, let alone how to assess or provide feedback to students and parents on students’ level of sophistication related to these competencies.

We are also interested in providing guidance to educators about how best to grade and report students’ 21st Century skills, given the complexity and interconnectedness of these constructs with each other and with discipline-specific knowledge and skills. There is a lot that is still unknown about how students develop competence in interpersonal and intrapersonal knowledge and skills. One of the biggest unanswered questions is the extent to which students should be expected to meet certain proficiency/mastery targets at specific periods in time (e.g., end of grade level, end of grade span, and/or end of 12th grade). This uncertainty should give any educator or school system pause—especially as it relates to reporting on student acquisition or attainment of 21st Century skills to parents on report cards.

The Center’s partnership with PBLWorks in this area to date is comprised of two main components. We started by reviewing the literature on each of the four selected 21st Century skills to make sure we had a solid, research-based understanding of what constitutes critical thinkingcollaborationcomplex communication, and self-direction. The Center’s suite of literature reviews (1) define the targeted concept; (2) discuss what is known from the research on how the concept develops over time and best instructional practices; (3) explore assessment issues related to each skill; and (4) provide recommendations for assessment design and use. The next four posts in this Instructing & Assessing 21st Century Skills blog series will briefly summarize key features of each literature review.

Next, the Center’s team reviewed a select sample of existing rubrics used in the field for each 21st Century skill using an evaluation matrix created with seventeen criteria grouped into four categories—basics, design, quality, and usability. The purpose for evaluating existing rubrics was to examine the extent to which there were research-based tools available for educators, schools and districts to use to evaluate the quality of student thinking, expression, interactions, and so on—or if new tools would need to be created to support formative instruction and assessment in schools.

One of the key takeaways from the reviews of the literature and the existing rubrics was that there are no precise end-of-grade level or end-of-grade span proficiency standards or empirically-validated learning progressions for most 21st Century skills.

Two additional posts in this series will highlight assessment and measurement issues associated with 21st Century skills. One post will provide an overview of the key considerations. The companion post will provide guidance to educators around best practices related to 21st Century skill classroom assessment design, as well as grading and reporting practices.