Expanding Tools for 21st Century Assessment

March 5, 2014 Jonathan E. Martin
Expanding Tools for 21st Century Assessment

Expanding student assessment beyond traditional cognitive measures is a fast-rising tide, as evidenced by the number of scholars, researchers, and scientists focused in this area. A recent report from the Asia Society, prepared by RAND Corporation researchers, provides a very useful primer.

Measuring 21st century competencies

Entitled “Measuring 21st Century Competencies: Guidance for Educators,” the report draws upon firm research – the National Research Council’s report, “Education for Life and Work”– to establish three clusters for 21stCentury competencies – Cognitive, Interpersonal, and Intrapersonal.

The report describes: non-cognitive traits that should be assessed in each of these clusters, factors to be evaluated in selecting assessments, traditional and innovative assessments in the market today, and careful prescriptions for how these types of assessments should be implemented in an educational setting. The authors also carefully review the essential technical elements of these assessments, such as reliability, validity, cost of money and time, and potential for supporting student selection and instruction. Assessments include traditional multiple choice and self-ratings to more innovative portfolios and performance task items.

The authors find one tool – the Index Group’s Mission Skills Assessment (MSA), which has been reported on in this blog – to be most promising, because it is innovative, relatively inexpensive, and of high quality. It is great to see an independent school product so prized in a national report like this, written primarily for public school educators. (It is exciting also to see SSATB’s Think Tank Special Report (2013) cited in the bibliography!)

At its conclusion, the authors share a useful set of 12 guidelines and precautions for using measures of 21stcentury competencies—and we should pay careful heed to them, especially the following:

  1. Be very clear with yourself the purpose of your assessment.
  2. More complex assessments may be needed to measure more complex competencies.
  3. Acquiring information about students’ understanding of 21st century competencies can make educators and students more intentional about improving the competencies.
  4. Assessments can have unintended consequences, which should be monitored in each local context.
  5. Measures of 21st century competencies should be part of a balanced assessment strategy.

This is a free, downloadable document of about fifty pages, and highly worth its while for admissions officers and other academic administrators. Consider sharing it with your colleagues and planning a conversation about it soon!

MVMindCourtesy Mount Vernon Presbyterian School

What are they doing exactly to assess the MV Mind in applicants? Beard explains it is still a work in progress, but first, they are revising teacher recommendation forms. They are limited in what they can create on their own, but Beard has participated in the work of the Atlanta consortium to tweak the language of their shared forms, add questions to hint more at the non-academic skills, and to articulate to recommending teachers the attributes they most value.

Second, Mount Vernon is revising its in-house assessments of applicants to include performance tasks this year. As noted above in the discussion of the Asia Society report, performance assessment is increasingly valued for assessment of 21st century competencies, and more and more schools are experimenting here. Beard explains: “Because demonstrations of learning at Mount Vernon are much more than answering questions on paper, we desire to innovate our Student Questionnaire Form. Recently (without prompting) an applicant submitted a movie he created of himself that included his answers to each of the questions from the form. We would like to include this kind of open-ended opportunity for our applicants describe themselves; the submissions could look more like portfolio pieces and allow prospective students to experience what its like to participate in such a task.”

Third, they are doing more to embed questions illuminating students’ mindsets into the application and the interview process. Design thinking is highly emphasized at MVPS, and applicants are asked about problems they have noticed or discovered in their lives and the world today, the solutions they can identify to address them, and what they can do to personally affect a solution. These questions both help identify the right students and communicate back what the school values – Inquiry, Innovation, Impact.

MV statementCourtesy Mount Vernon Presbyterian School
Asia Society logo       RAND logo

Report from the Field: Mount Vernon Presbyterian School

Mount Vernon Presbyterian School resides just north of Atlanta, and is fast-becoming recognized as among the most innovative K-12 independent schools. Head, Dr. Brett Jacobsen, and Director of Admissions, Kirsten Beard, are thinking about how to better match what is prized and assessed in the school’s instructional program with what is considered and valued in admission assessment and selection. As Beard explains, “We have an opportunity through the process to demonstrate more about the school and what we value.” She quotes Dr. Jacobsen’s desire “to have the admissions process be another part of our branding, and more importantly, have everything in alignment.”

It’s working. Beard explains: “Our applicant pool is growing tremendously year to year. In an oversaturated market, it is so important to distinguish yourself. We have many strong schools in Atlanta, but we are doing something different. We’ve built system-wide alignment around our Mount Vernon Mind and our bold, ambitious mission statement.”

The Mount Vernon Mind establishes six modes and competencies students are most distinctly expected to develop: Solution Seeker, Ethical Decision Maker, Communicator, Creative Thinker, Innovator, and Collaborator.

About the Author

Jonathan E. Martin

Principal Jonathan E. Martin Educational Services (AZ) Jonathan Martin has 15 years experience as an independent school head, most recently as Head of St. Gregory College Preparatory School (AZ). He holds degrees from Harvard University (BA, Government, cum laude); Starr King School for the Ministry (M.Div., Unitarian ministry preparation); and the University of San Francisco School of Education (MA, Private School Administration). In 2008, he was a Visiting Fellow at the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. He previously headed Saklan Valley School (CA) and Maybeck High School (CA). In the first stage of his educational career, he taught History, Social Studies, and English at Maybeck, and served in a role equivalent to Dean of Students. From 2010-12 he was a member of the board, and Program & Professional Development Chair, of the Independent School Association of the Southwest (ISAS). He was a contributor to the new National Association of Independent Schools publication A Strategic Imperative: A Guide to Becoming a School of the Future.

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