Weekly Reflection: What is 21st century assessment?

North and South magazine

We hear a lot about 21st century learning in education.

About how computers are going to revolutionize and personalize teaching and learning. In fact there’s even been a government inquiry into digital learning yet the elephant in the room is assessment.

Last month North and South ran an article boldly stating that kids needed to take more control in the classroom from those pesky know it all teachers.  The article argues that public school trained teachers are so wedded in the current system that they cannot or will not change their practice to meet the new century.

Yet I often wonder if the problem might not actually be with our teaching practices but with our assessment practices. The article noted that in the early in the 1990s, senior New Zealand pupils had more qualifications in the world. Post implementation of NCEA, New Zealand still has more external testing and qualifications than anywhere in the world.

Perhaps the problem isn’t that the current crop of teachers aren’t innovative, but it is our national obsession with measuring learning that is squeezing innovative teaching practices. Because simply put what gets measured gets done.

In an era where schools have their NCEA and National Standards results put up for scrutiny, I’m sure I’m not on teacher feeling the pressure between that amazing engaging curriculum and ensuring achievement gains as measured by standardized tests for students.

I’m not disputing the importance of qualifications, my own life has been enriched by gaining them. However if in the process of pushing as many students as possible to gain qualifications as possible we’ve turned vast numbers of kids off learning, something is wrong with our school system.

I sit here pondering this as I’m making my reading OTJ on one student. Last year the student didn’t read any books last year, this year the student has read over 30.  We have conversations about what book the student is reading, what book the student wants to read next.  The student knows exactly which type of books they like to read and will devour them in a few days. I’ve turned a non-reader into a reader yet I’ve spent hours ruminating about getting the OTJ right. The testing points to being just below standard and doubt sinks in. Instead of getting the student to read should I have spent more time on worksheets to get better results? Is that joy and love of reading going to be killed by being labelled below standard?

And that makes me wonder how ever can we have a student-centred personalized education system if we keep insisting on assessment system which is not.  We test primarily through pencil and paper. We tell students to sit by themselves, we cut them off from information sources so we can check how much information has been retained and the ones who can retain it the best win.

It all seems so very 1900s in which we used education to sort out who got the manual jobs from those who would go off to run the empire.

So what does 21st century assessment look like?

Is it getting students to sit a multiple choice test on a computer. Surely that is no more an example of 21st century assessment than typing out a hand written essay on word?

Is it using an app to help them sit a pencil and paper exam? Why can’t the kids bring the phone with them? Or even better yet send off their best piece of work to the examiners?

Instead of teaching kids to meekly ask ‘is this good?’ we need to getting them to proclaim “this is my best!”


12 thoughts on “Weekly Reflection: What is 21st century assessment?

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  1. “Perhaps the problem isn’t that the current crop of teachers aren’t innovative, but it is our national obsession with measuring learning that is squeezing innovative teaching practices. Because simply put what gets measured gets done.”

    I feel it.


      1. I think it is coming back around, Stephanie. Optimistically, I see teachers prioritising values, competencies, hauora and putting the whole child first again. Letting the national standards be a smaller part of the bigger picture, instead of crowding and dominating it. Of course the irony is teaching the whole child promotes their outcomes in literacy and numeracy anyway.


  2. This is such an important topic, Stephanie. When we begin thinking outside of the proverbial box regarding assessments, our instruction changes. Not only that, we are allowed to align instruction and assessment.

    Some assessments will be forced upon us because the standardized tests aren’t going away. However, that is only one way to assess.

    What if the child read a book aloud into a podcast, practiced at home that night, and re-recorded the next day? What if we asked that students to talk about differences she heard and the ways she practiced.

    What if we taught the child to predict what kinds of questions might appear on a worksheet or a test? If he/she can learn to ask those questions of herself, worksheets are no longer needed.

    Then you can do more of the fun stuff :).


  3. Yes! a voice of reason straight from for the chalkface, who’d figure? Certainly not the polices administrators and bureaucrats who believe having attended school in their youth qualifies them as an expert in all things educational.

    You are saying what needs to be said – it is time learning focused on learning and not the attainment of some content bound unit of worth.


    1. Hi Nicole
      Thanks so much for your comment. I sometimes get frustrated that the people who seem to be driving education haven’t spent even a day in the classroom before making pronouncements.



  4. I’ve been pondering the way we assess also, especially after doing my first project based learning unit in which the students had to create a film guide. Then I had to get them to write a practise essay so they would be prepared for their exam. It struck me as a waste of time because I should have been marking the presentation of their film guide not an irrelevant essay.
    It’s not the teachers that are to blame but, as usual, we are the ones that are criticised.


  5. I’m grappling with the same stuff at the mo, especially at this time of year.

    What I’ve come to (and I’m still not even close to coming to an answer) is that there is some assessment / OTJing that you just have to do. So you do it.

    What you do next is the important part.

    Do you sit there bemoaning the state of assessment or do you say, well, right – I’ve done this silly test, it’s told me that this student got this particular grade on this certain day due to these multiplicity of variables… and in some ways it’s helpful, in some it’s not. It’s one (small, varied, subjective) part of the puzzle.

    So you take that grade, and you report it, because you have to. Then you do the cool stuff. Nothing is stopping people from reporting the awesomeness, the wide and amazing learning, the key competency based achievement and evidence, the growth in the areas that we know matter. Make this rich, varied, authentic evidence of learning available to whanau – along with the mandated reporting of level – and make sure you communicate the value you place on it.

    It’s extra work – it’s over and above what we need to do… but do we want to change things? Do we want to press play instead of pressing pause? Do we want to focus on what we know really matters?

    You say what does 21st Century Assessment look like? Is it something more like e-portfolios where students, teachers, parents and stakeholders contribute a range of different evidence of learning. Or is it self-regulated, self-organised assessment where students have goals which they then submit evidence to, of their own learning, themselves. Could it be based on contribution to the community?

    Awesome subject though and one which, like I mentioned, many teachers are probably grappling with around this time.


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