01/14/2013 04:00 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2013

Let's Truly Assess 21st Century Skills!

Twenty-first century skills. Buzz word or reality? As I visit schools, I know many of them are teaching these skills. From critical thinking and problem solving, to technology literacy and collaboration, teachers are targeting these skills in the instructional process, and leveraging them in the curriculum. Many teachers are being called to teach these skills, and don't know how to. I've done many workshops with teachers to arm them with these skills. However, there is one issue that seems to be a roadblock for true implementation: assessment.

I do know teachers are using rubrics and products to assess these skills. Some schools like High Tech High in San Diego have them in the grade book, but this is a rarity. This is a pocket of excellence. It shouldn't be. When I was teaching at a project-based learning STEM school, we too wanted to teach and assess the skills of collaboration, critical thinking and communication. Now communication is naturally built into English language arts curriculum and the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts across all subjects. We had no problem assessing this, and leveraging it in the grade book. But what about a skill like collaboration? The Common Core does have a standard where students "participate in collaborative discussions," and this is across all grade levels. However, collaboration is more than just discussions; it's about creating together, coming to consensus and other quality indicators. Similarly with the 21st century skill of critical thinking, we can unpack our standards to find connections, but it feels like we are trying too hard. This is my struggle as an educator, and a struggle for many of the teachers I work with. We want to teach and assess 21st century skills, but we feel somewhat limited in our ability to do just that. We ran up against resistance with the district on truly assessing them in the grade book. We understood that if we truly valued 21st century skills, our assessment systems needed to model that. However, the system did not share that value the same way we did.

This is the biggest issue for teaching and assessing 21st century skills in our schools. We need our assessment systems to value them, and that means having them in the grade book. In my conversations with educators this is the biggest roadblock. For those educators that have the power to assess 21st century skills in the grade book, they create a culture where content is not king. Instead critical thinking is leveraged across the entire curriculum. Students have more buy in to collaborate, and they have quality indicators and targets to aim for in technology literacy. Through this true assessment of 21st century skills, we can re-frame what we value for our students, and really make them college and career-ready.