Home > Assessment, Future of Education > Assessment in the 21st Century: What Should It Look Like?

Assessment in the 21st Century: What Should It Look Like?

If you’re reading this post, chances are you keep up with the trends in education.  You are aware that a grassroots movement is underway to turn education up side down right side up.  Impromptu discussions, professional development sessions, twitter posts, TED talks and blogs (much like this one) have all been drawing teachers together with a focus on 21st century learners.  What do these learners need?  What can we provide for them? How does education need to be changed, reformed, or revolutionized?

These questions almost inevitably lead to (or include) discussions of assessment.  There is disdain for standardized exams, and desire for individualized assessments.  Many discussions have gone to extremes, suggesting that facts are not important; that assessments should only be authentic, individualized, and assess higher order thinking.  Even the history of my own twitter posts may be interpreted to mean this.  Don’t buy into this thinking too fast.  Consider a world where knowing facts is not important.  Seems scary to me.

Sure, our education system needs to culminate to more than just facts and figures.  It’s not enough for our Chemistry students to be able to name the chemical with the formula H2SO4(aq), or for History students to know the significance of the year 1767.  But knowing these facts is valuable.  In the lab, not knowing that H2SO4 is a strong acid can lead to serious injury.  Knowing the events leading up to July 4 1767 (or July 1 1867 if you’re from Canada such as myself) gives us perspective, an appreciation for our great countries.

My point is that acquiring a large number of facts is valuable even if it isn’t the only reason to send our kids to school.  Sure, students need to synthesize and evaluate; but synthesis becomes really hard when you don’t have any pieces to assemble.  Facts are the individual parts that students use to compose, to synthesize.  So, how do we respect students needs of higher level thinking and 21st century skills, yet honour the necessity of possessing a diverse wealth information?  Maybe the solution is a dual track assessment system.

Track 1: We need to accept that facts are important, and that an efficient way of assessing a massive amounts of information is through multiple choice and short response exams (quizzes, tests, assignments, call them what you will).  This first track of assessment would happen periodically throughout a semester to assess how much raw knowledge students have gained.  We essentially have this infrastructure in place, though we may need to cut back. There is also a need to have professional development on item writing.  From what I can tell many exams, including ‘standardized exams’ have some poorly assembled questions.

Track 2: This is the track that doesn’t yet exist in most cases.  It should be more of a continuous assessment that happens along side the daily grind of learning vs the periodic assessments as described in track 1.  Assessments here should be authentic and meaningful, based off of student performance of various skill sets (including 21st century skills) as well as high levels of thinking.  Tasks should be highly engaging, and allow for student judgement and creativity.  The focus will not be on facts, but more on enduring understandings.  Here, students won’t be required to have memorized the 4 main greenhouse gases, but they may be required to take on an authentic role in the study and solution searching of global warming.

Ok, so obviously I haven’t worked out all of the details.  Maybe I am completely off beat here, I’m not certain.  I am certain that the world (including myself) isn’t ready to give up teaching facts and, simultaneously, students need to focus on so much more.


What are your views on the need for facts in our schools and our assessments?  Should we be tossing out all assessments of facts, and focused purely on performance assessments?  Maybe you think we should go the other extreme as we’ve had through most of the 20th century?  Please, share your ideas and opinions below, I’d love to chat!

  1. May 26, 2010 at 21:45

    I think that relevant facts tend to be demonstrated in performance assessments. “H2SO4 is a strong acid can lead to serious injury” is this sulfuric acid? You see I don’t connect the formula with the name. At what level might the actual formula become a significant fact to recall. At what point does the failure to remember that specific fact warrant failure? I know you were offering a random example. My question should be generalized to other facts perhaps.

    I do see the relevance of knowing facts. I argued earlier this year for basic math facts. Knowing your multiplication tables may not be essential, but not having them at hand makes higher math a painful and confusing experience. Imagine not having sight words! Imagine decoding sentences. The argument may not be knowing and testing for facts like these, but agreeing on what constitutes the essential facts. This is worth a conversation.

    • May 26, 2010 at 22:03

      Alan, I often consider the math example of the times tables, but I had never considered the idea of not having sight-words. This is another great example so thank you.

      I guess I would compare the Sulfuric Acid example to that of times tables. For chemistry students, being able to identify formulae, names, and structure helps students analyze different substances and start to understand chemical properties and interactions. A stronger example would have been an organic compound as opposed to acids, as high school students start looking at these structures in some detail.

      I think the facts become the language of the discipline, in a way. Being able to communicate effectively in a discipline, be it chemistry or math or history, is important. So maybe it isn’t specifically being able to name sulfuric acid that is important, but we should be looking for general knowledge and understanding of the nomenclature of acids and bases, molecular and ionic compounds (for the random chemistry example). And then maybe these basic facts and fundamentals of communication are assessed so teacher can understand the readiness level of students before moving deeper into the subject matter. Can’t teach reading skills if the kids don’t know their ABC’s.

      Anyways, thank you again for giving me more to think about. Cheers.

  2. Chris Taylor
    May 26, 2010 at 21:48

    Daniel I think you are on the right track on all accounts.I think there desperately needs to be a balance between knowing factual information and the application of knowledge. Some schools pay lip service to authentic assessment but it tends to be dumbed down for ease of correction etc I thinks students are entitled to scream if they have to make one more poster as that seems to be the most overused task at the moment. I am like you in that I see the need for real change to assessment but haven’t got it all worked out yet.

  3. Michele, Judy, Trisha, Connie, Marybeth, Molly
    January 11, 2011 at 07:58

    Per discussion, students should not be expected to memorize facts but they need to be taught the skills to locate facts. They need to be taught how to apply the information. A combination of both standard and authentic assessments makes the most sense. Students should be given more opportunities for authentic assessment with a “real audience” applicable to real-life situations.

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