New Forms of Assessment to Measure Mastery of 21st Century Skills

Innovate+Educate released an interesting report last week. Shift Happens 2, authored by Dr. Merrilea Mayo and Jamai Blivin contends that we are already seeing a shift toward a new reality with regards to our learning-to-employment model.

Today, it is no longer a pathway from primary to secondary to postsecondary education leading to a job. That staid formula is no longer working, especially for most of America. Today, a learner’s most pressing need is a greater connect between education and employment outcomes.

Instead, the authors argue, we are moving into a new paradigm, one in which “Credentials, courses, people, and jobs will each be articulated as collections of fundamental units of knowledge (“know” competencies) and skill (“do” competencies). These competencies will need to be assessed to provide meaning to the end user (both the learner and the work i.e., employer.)”

The authors focus most of their attention on the shift from degrees to mastery-based credentials that align more closely with the professional skills and competencies required by contemporary employers. This, they say, will result in a dramatic change in educational priorities and learning measurement. The result?

A future in which credentials will no longer be limited to degrees, but will come in varying shapes and sizes, offered by many organizations, training providers, and employers;
A future in which credentials will, however, be able to articulate a set of underlying “know” knowledge and “do” performance skill competencies;
A future in which a credential’s scope will be described by the set of competencies it covers and measured via assessment;
A future in which a credential’s quality will be indicated by evidence of mastery within each competency before it is awarded;
A future in which quality metrics, such as consumer reviews or employer use of credentials will come into play, bringing the best and most usable credentials and assessments to the forefront.

I do think we will inevitably see at least some of the transition discussed by the authors. There are too many disruptive forces at play to think there won’t occur some transformation in the way we prepare people to flourish both professionally and personally.

On the other hand, there remain significant obstacles to achieving a meaningful and sustainable version of the authors’ vision. The biggest challenge, I believe, is the emergence of more substantive and clearly defined assessment and evaluation strategy.

Take it from someone who has spent ample time both as an educator and a business leader — demonstrable mastery is a difficult thing to assess. It certainly transcends traditional summative assessments. In particular, there are four mastery components that must be addressed in any kind of credential before they can be taken seriously.

1. Communication and writing skills — The report correctly points out that there is a growing gap between what employers need from their employees and the skills possessed by many of today’s college graduates. In particular, degree-bearing students often lack essential communication and writing skills. Measuring these skills accurately requires multi-step, an iterative assessment that is contextualized within specific areas of study.

2. Interpersonal communication skills — As any business leader knows, it is extremely difficult to scale organizations quickly and cost-effectively unless you have employees who can transition easily in and out of teams and projects. This means having strong interpersonal skills, as well as an ability to work with diverse worker populations. Assessing these skills requires the creation of situational activities in which learners produce personalized evidence of their capabilities.

3. Critical thinking — As the authors of the report say, employers are looking for skilled workers who can apply their knowledge to solve problems in the real world. While considerable attention has been devoted to the best way to help people develop critical thinking skills, we must also develop evaluation methodologies that can measure this ability.

4. Creative thinking — Employers often mention the need for workers, in every position, who can think creatively. As with critical thinking skills, this can be difficult to quantify, particularly using traditional assessment tools. This means we must develop both clear standards for evaluating creative thinking as well as the appropriate assessment practices to measure student performance.

Addressing these challenges is not easy, which is one of the reasons companies have, for decades, opted to accept a college degree as general evidence of readiness for the professional workforce. While certainly not perfect, employers have reasoned that students with a college degree have gained some experience, albeit uneven, in the areas mentioned above. And, while there may be some inevitability to a shift toward alternative credentials, the future will not render improved employees unless we address the complete readiness gap and design both new curricula and new evaluation tools.

Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEL Library

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