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How can we assess 21st century learning?

21st Century LearningIn a day and age when the term “21st century learning” is being thrown around, not much has been discussed about the concrete facts of how these skills should be imparted and assessed. While we know that this method of education is designed to prepare children for college, careers and life in the 21st century, how can we know if and when they are truly ready?

Just as methods of instruction are changing, with many teachers integrating technology like adaptive learning programs into their classrooms, assessment is also evolving. The Common Core State Standards, for instance, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, bring with them new online tests slated for full implementation in the 2014-15 school year.

But what about everyday assessment? While yearly exams can provide important data about how students are progressing generally and what more can be done, teachers need to adapt their instruction to the needs of their students every day to make sure that they have a deep understanding of what they’re being taught. Which brings us back to the question: How can we assess 21st century learning?

Adaptive learning programs
It’s impossible for teachers to be in multiple places at once, which is why adaptive learning programs, like those developed by DreamBox, are so immensely helpful. These programs not only personalize instruction, but also assess student learning and gather data. The DreamBox system is able to interact with students as they use it, analyzing data from the students’ decisions in real-time and adjusting instruction accordingly. Diagnostic and adaptive assessments are embedded within each lesson, which means that teachers constantly have access to new information that will tell them whether or not students are really “getting it.” Teachers and school administrators can use the data from these built-in assessments to track student proficiency and progress, and improve student achievement prior to mandated state or national testing. When assessment is combined with learning, it can reduce the need for formal testing, which may take up valuable class time that students could be using to hone their 21st century skills.

Build in real-world applications
The main idea behind 21st century learning is to give students tools that they can apply outside of the classroom: Critical thinking, communication, problem solving and media literacy are skills will help students be successful in school and in life. The problem is that assessing these abilities can be a bit challenging because they are not as concrete as something like using the quadratic formula. If the whole point of teaching students 21st century skills is making sure they are ready to confront the real world, then why not assess their abilities by having them apply their knowledge to real-life scenarios? For example, students can develop online portfolios to research, create and publish projects that apply what they’ve learned and demonstrate how they’ve learned it. When teachers, administrators, parents and peers can easily access a student’s work and comment with further questions, a more comprehensive assessment of academic understanding and progress can be developed.

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Jessie Woolley-Wilson