21st Century Skills and Standardized Testing–Not Mutually Exclusive (Pt.1)

One of the most frustrating things for me, as an Instructional Technology Specialist, is breaking down thebarricade barriers created by the present-day environment that places standardized testing ahead of so much of what the real-world actually demands. Skills such as problem-solving, collaborating, creativity, and the like are pushed aside, often only rearing their heads late in the school year, once the standardized testing is completed. Teachers and administrators are under such pressure to perform on the exams that they often reply with, “I would love to use technology, but I need to get my kids ready for the test,” or, “I don’t have time for extra stuff right now–the test is coming up soon.” What is most unfortunate is that bad practices have been preached for so long now (repetitive practice tests, worksheets, skill-and-drill, etc.) as the solution that many educators have come to believe that they are THE way to raise student achievement. What results is that students end up with a limited, narrow skill-set focused on only strategies that will nudge up test scores.

This practice runs contradictory to much educational research, which supports the idea that students truly achieve more when taught broader skills, and when the curriculum is enriched, meaningful, and engaging. It also shows a disregard for the cries of business and industry, who want graduates who can perform much higher level tasks. So, then, what is the answer? How does a school balance the demands of a poorly-crafted accountability system while still preparing its students for life in the new millennium? While I don’t pretend to know all the answers, I can see some possible steps in the right direction, based upon the research of respected educators and the experiences of many educators and myself. This will be part 1 in a series that will attempt to offer some practical ways that teachers can utilize technology, specifically the tools of the Read/Write Web, to accomplish both goals.

First of all, it is important to understand what is meant by 21st Century Skills. According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, these include:

  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Information Literacy
  • Media Literacy
  • ICT (Information, Communications, and Technology) Literacy
  • Flexibility and Adaptability
  • Initiative and Self-direction
  • Social and Cross-Cultural Skills
  • Productivity and Accountability
  • Leadership and Responsibility

(Framework for 21st Century Learning–pdf)

It is fair to say that these skills are not reflected in today’s standardized tests, which focus on basic skills almost exclusively.Students testing 21st Century skills require learners to be able to look at information from many sources at many angles, to twist and shape it, to seek the input of others, and to create a product that is new, unique, and useful.

Fortunately, there are some basic skills and instructional concepts that have practical applications towards both the demands of the testing system and the demands of the real world. And I believe the tools of the read/write web can be utilized to foster these skills in our students and create learning environments that encourage higher student achievement, not just on the tests, but in their broader academic pursuits. It is possible to do all of this without boring students to the point of disengagement or even rebellion with the standard, drill-and-kill or pre-packaged approach of too many educators.

In their book, Classroom Instruction that Works1, Robert Marzanno, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock touch on several key skills, including:

  • Identifying Similarities and Differences
  • Summarizing and Note-Taking
  • Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition
  • Homework and Practice
  • Nonlinguistic Representations
  • Cooperative Learning
  • Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback
  • Generating and Testing Hypotheses
  • Cues, Questions, and Advance Organizers

The authors examined and combined dozens of research studies to demonstrate the effectiveness of these skills, not only as general tools, but in actually bringing about higher student achievement on the tests. What Marzanno et al propose is that more emphasis is placed upon skills that overlap the curriculum areas and provide students with tools that will help withTest almost any academic task, rather than simply teaching a 5-step procedure to finding a square root.

In addition to teaching students broadly applicable skills, teachers can foster an environment that encourages students to be more engaged and to perform at a level that will push them beyond the basics. In his book, Working on the Work2, Phillip Schlechty proposes that teachers focus less on specific skills and more on the nature and quality of the work students are asked to complete. By getting students truly, deeply involved in what they are doing, they will work harder, learn more, and retain that knowledge better. He outlines ten design qualities for student work that can encourage such performance:

  • Content and Substance: Educators, in collaboration with the community, identify the essential learnings and skills that students must master.
  • Organization of Knowledge: Content is organized so that access to the material is clear and relatively easy for all students.
  • Product Focus: Engaging work almost always focuses on a product or performance of value to students.
  • Clear and Compelling Product Standards: The Standards for assessing the products or the performances are clear and important to students.
  • Protection from Adverse Consequences for Initial Failures: Students receive feedback on their work and have opportunities to reach the Standard throughout the process.
  • Affirmation of Performance: Student products are observed by persons other than the teacher.
  • Affiliation: The design of the work requires cooperative action among students and adults.
  • Novelty and Variety: The work is varied in methods and format so that students use a variety of skills, media, and modes of analysis.
  • Choice: Students are provided with choice in the ways of doing the work and the methods of presentation.
  • Authenticity: The work has significance and is related to consequences in the present lives of students.

(Source: Fife Public Schools)

By putting more thought into the type of work students are asked to complete, Schlechty asserts, they will achieve greater heights in terms of daily performance, behavior, attendance, and, of course, on the tests.

What I will be trying to do in this series is to focus on student use of Web 2.0 tools to learn and apply the skills Marzanno outlined, as well as to create the type of academic environment envisioned by Schlechty. By doing so, I hope that it can be demonstrated that it is not necessary to abandon the good practices of quality teaching and learning in the name of state-mandated testing. Rather, the narrow goals of such testing can and will be reached by teaching a broader, more meaningful curriculum, and through the use of web-based tools that will foster true student engagement. Reader feedback will be greatly appreciated, as this is something of a brainstorm, so please chime in with suggestions, disagreements, or questions.

Coming next: Classroom blogging

1Marzanno, Robert J. et al. Classroom Instruction that Works. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005.

2Schlechty, Phillip C. Working on the Work: An Action Plan for Teachers, Principals, and Superintendents. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.

1 Comment

  1. I am really excited about your blog series, Randy. I know it will be very interesting.

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