The Assessment Gap in Career and College Readiness
What does "college and career readiness" mean? The Common Core State Standards suggest some clear and reasonable criteria. Consider the example of critical thinking. The Common Core documents suggest that students must be able to examine claims, arguments, and evidence and determine whether or not the evidence supports the claim. In addition, students should be able to advance arguments and support their ideas with evidence. The Common Core also places a heavy emphasis on informational writing, a need highlighted by college professors frustrated by the poor writing skills of even high-achieving high school students.
Businesses, which spend more than $3 billion annually on remedial writing skills, also have very pragmatic reasons to translate career readiness into a specific need for students to write competently. Ask employers and college faculty and you will also hear demands for other 21st century skills, such as creativity, collaboration, and communication, including not only skills in writing, but also in speaking and technology, such as web design, digital communication, and social networking.
So here is the challenge: If we agree that critical thinking, communication, creativity, and collaboration are keys to college and career readiness, why do we persistently fail to assess these skills?
Let's start with communication. Because writing tests are more expensive to administer than multiple-choice tests, there are fewer states that assess writing now than in the 20th century. What few state writing assessments remain hardly reflect the rigorous writing skills anticipated by the demands of college and career readiness. While colleges and employers require writing that is crisp; thoughtful; evidence-based; and the result of drafting, editing, rewriting, and painstaking improvement, the typical writing assessment is a one-shot wonder, created without taking advantage of evidence or available resources.
Indeed, most writing assessments are the antithesis of what students might be expected to do in college or on the job. Not a single state assesses speaking, though this form of communication remains essential for engagement in collaborative groups at work or in higher education. Not a single state assesses the use of technology to communicate, such as building a website or creating a dynamic and purposeful network.
What about collaboration? In the context of assessment, state testing authorities use a more technical term—cheating. The idea that students should work together to identify complementary skills to create a superior result is precisely what employers and colleges require, but the antithesis of what contemporary assessments demand. And lest we become too judgmental about state testing authorities, let us remember that scores of doctoral dissertations that cover collaborative learning were written by a single person working entirely alone.
The most significant opportunities for students in K–12 education to collaborate involve team sports and other extracurricular activities, where the athletic victory, the symphony, or the play depends on collaboration and teamwork. In these areas—where collaboration is valued—students practice the subtle and complex skills of collaboration for hours every day. Even in schools where academic collaboration is valued and project-based learning is prized, it would a sobering exercise to count the number of hours that students devote to collaboration in the academic class that most emphasize this virtue, compared to the number of hours the same students devote to collaboration in the precisely labeled "extracurricular" activities.
Creative thinking is something that employers and colleges value, so how is that assessed in the K–12 classroom? Although we cannot necessarily contrive creativity, we can at the very least avoid suppressing it. One recent example with one of my own students makes the point: After I had posed what I thought was a trenchant and thought-provoking question, a student replied, "I think that's the wrong question. If you really want to understand this issue, you should be asking . . ." This was one of those rare moments where, as a teacher, I wanted to stop time and announce a "creative thinking alert" because the student challenged the premise of the lesson but remained committed to the essence of learning. Although I praised this student's intellectual energy, I could not help but wonder what would happen if the same process happened in the course of the traditional assessment. If a student wrote, "I think this is the wrong question," the likely result would be a nonscored response and a devastatingly low score.
Critical thinking is a skill marked more by rhetoric than reality. In their splendid book, Academically Adrift (2011), Arum and Roksa use an assessment of critical thinking in which students must "make an argument" or "break an argument" by comparing the claims of a newspaper headline, for example, with the evidence in the article. This is a skill that every student—indeed, every citizen—should have. Critical thinking is the only defense against charlatans in politics; in marketing; and for that matter, in education. Critical thinkers ask, "How does the best available evidence support or oppose this claim?" But while we praise the concept of critical thinking, we neither practice it nor assess it.
Nobel Prize winner Daniel Khaneman (2011) makes clear that the critical thinking deficit is not limited to K–12 students. His splendid book Thinking, Fast and Slow catalogs the logical errors and personal biases that afflict both the least sophisticated students and the most sophisticated experts. These are people who aced every test and were, by any measure of traditional assessments, academic success stories. They had advanced degrees from prestigious universities. But their failures in critical thinking had significant consequences not only on their personal decisions, but also, in the case of those in a position to influence national policy, catastrophic consequences for the nation and economy.
Assess What's Important
How can we expect to have critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication if we resolutely refuse to assess these skills that are essential for college and career readiness? The answer is that we must stop expecting external authorities to define curriculum with their assessments. It is intellectually inconsistent for educators and school leaders to decry the effect of standardized testing and at the same time claim that their prime directive is limited to test preparation. We can do both.
When students write—particularly when they engage in reflective and deeply analytical, informative writing—their scores on multiple-choice tests in reading, math, science, and social studies improve. When students collaborate—particularly when that collaboration provides more immediate and specific feedback than any teacher could provide alone—individual achievement improves. When students think creatively and critically, they are more engaged in school and the subjects they are tackling. Indeed, a nascent "debate across the curriculum" trend is emerging in which all of these skills—critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication—are combined so that team debate with evidence, challenge, claims, and counter-claims are at the heart of pedagogy in math; science; social studies; English; and for that matter, every subject.
If we wait for these essential skills to be reinforced by external assessments, whether from state departments of education, multistate consortia, or international assessment programs, we wait in vain. The most successful assessment innovations will happen at the local level, and teachers crave the opportunity to add value and intellectually engage in the lives of their students. The challenges of college and career readiness offer a beacon of hope to teachers who have been sullenly reduced to the foremen of test-prep factories. Schools, districts, and states can do more than adopt standards for college and career readiness. They can instead develop innovative, challenging, and collaborative assessments that are worthy of the 21st century and the students who inherit it.
Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Douglas B. Reeves is founder of the Leadership and Learning Center in Salem, Mass., and author of ASCD books on educational leadership.
ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 14. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.