Assessment of 21st Century Skills: The Current Landscape

June 1, 2005

How can we best prepare students to succeed in the 21st century? The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a coalition of leading education, business and technology organizations, organized to address this question and create a powerful vision for 21st century education. The group's members recognize the profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students acquire in school and those required in today's 21st century communities and technology-infused workplaces. In its 2003 report, Learning for the 21st Century, the Partnership synthesized the perspectives of business, education, and government leaders to create a common language and strategic direction for efforts to infuse 21st century skills into K-12 education and make U.S. education more globally competitive. In its subsequent reports and tools, the Partnership has continued to provide guidance to the education community, policymakers and other leaders as they work to embed 21st century skills into learning to better meet the demands of the global economy.

In order to bring its vision to fruition and successfully integrate 21st century skills into our educational system, the Partnership recognizes that another critical question must be asked: "How do we measure 21st century learning?" The Partnership believes that the movement to embrace and foster widespread adoption of 21st century skills hinges on identifying ways to assess students' acquisition and application of this knowledge. In light of this, the Partnership has developed its current report, Assessment of 21st Century Skills: the Current Landscape. In it, we have not reviewed assessments of traditional core content areas, understanding that many studies and reports have already addressed these types of assessments. Rather, we have surveyed the current landscape of assessments that measure key dimensions of 21st century learning: 21st Century Content (Global Awareness, Financial, Economic and Business Literacy and Civic Literacy), Learning Skills (Information and Communication Skills, Thinking and Problem-Solving Skills, and Interpersonal & Self- Directional Skills), and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Literacy. These key elements of 21st century learning are critical for every child's success as a worker and citizen in the 21st century. These are explained briefly here:

  • The concept of Global Awareness acknowledges that students need a deeper understanding of the thinking, motivations, and actions of different cultures and countries in order to successfully navigate and respond to communities and workplaces extending beyond their neighborhoods.

  • The concept of Civic Engagement recognizes that students need to understand, analyze, and participate in government and in community, both globally and locally, in order to shape the circumstances that impact their daily lives.

  • The concept of Financial, Economic and Business Literacy responds to the growing demand on people to understand business processes, entrepreneurial spirit, and the economic forces that drive today's economy.

  • The concept of Learning Skills acknowledges the need for students to think critically, analyze information, comprehend new ideas, communicate, collaborate, solve problems, and make decisions, while ICT Literacy recognizes that technology is essential to realizing these learning skills in today's knowledge economy.

Assessments of student achievement, from widely recognized standardized tests to classroom-based measures, have become an essential component of educational practice and a crucial ingredient of educational reform. While the assessment landscape is replete with assessments that measure knowledge of core content areas such as language arts, mathematics, science and social studies, there is a comparative lack of assessments and analyses focused on elements of 21st century learning. Additionally, there is a growing consensus that current assessments are not adequately measuring a student's ability to engage in the kinds of complex thinking and problem-solving tasks required of a 21st century learner. With spending on assessment development expected to grow into the billions of dollars this decade ($3.9 billion according to recent Government Accounting Office estimates (GAO, 2003)), it is vital that our investment focuses not merely on fulfilling federal requirements, but on preparing today's children to face the challenges of tomorrow's complex communities and workplaces. New assessment tools must be developed.

The Partnership is encouraged that the movement to foster 21st century learning as well as to develop the means to measure complex, higher-order thinking skills is emerging. States are meeting to discuss global awareness education and some have civic-skills assessments tied to accountability measures. Economics education has received federal recognition with the passage of the Excellence in Economics Education Act. With regard to learning skills and ICT literacy, both private and public sector organizations are demonstrating new approaches to assessing 21st century skills. And internationally, a broad consensus exists among education ministries that ICT literacy must be treated as a core skill area in the new century. While these examples are encouraging, they do not yet indicate a broad focus on assessing 21st century skills. Most K-12 assessments in widespread use today-whether they be of 21st century skills and content or of traditional core subject areas-have thus far measured only a student's knowledge of discrete facts, not a student's ability to apply knowledge in complex situations.

As more of our economic competitors move to foster 21st century skills within their educational systems, the United States faces a critical challenge to keep pace in preparing our students to meet the demands of today's global community. While U.S. students have improved their performance on international assessments of discrete knowledge-falling near the middle of the pack on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)-their performance on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures how 15-year-olds apply reading, mathematics and science content knowledge and skills to analyzing and evaluating information and solving problems and issues in real-life contexts, places the U.S. in the bottom third. Without a shift in focus in the U.S., it seems likely that this 21st century learning gap will only widen as other nations continue to stress 21st century skills in their national education plans.

Clearly, there is much to be done to ensure that U.S. students emerge from our schools with the skills needed to be effective workers, citizens and leaders in the 21st century. The Partnership envisions this report as a significant first step toward creating a comprehensive agenda focused on assessing 21st century skills and 21st century content.

To read the full pre-publication draft report, published by the Partnership, visit the report's homepage on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills website. The Assessment of 21st Century Skills: The Current Landscape


Margaret Honey
Chad Fasca
Suparna Sinha
Ellen Mandinach
Andrew Gersick