Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Assessing 21st Century Competences

"In fact, these are global competencies that we should want for all our students. A student with a world-class education should be able to use their knowledge and skills to investigate the world beyond their immediate environment, recognize other's perspectives, and communicate their ideas effectively to diverse audiences."

Thus Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opined to the gathered leaders of the Inter-American Development Bank earlier this month. I have been writing a series of posts stimulated by this speech, and wish to discuss this paragraph.

Yesterday I defined at greater length a set of competences that agrees with the secretary's pithier enumeration. But America is transfixed by educational assessment at the present time, and a question arises: if these are the competences we want our students to acquire, how can we assess whether they are in fact developing them?

Clearly not with the 20th century tests that are currently in the headlines, necessary though those are. It's clear that some of these competences can be assessed at a fixed time in a public arena, but many can't, including all three the secretary speaks of above.

The one country that I know has made a first serious attempt down this road is France. In that country, students concluding middle school (at the end of what would be our ninth grade) take a national examination, the brevet, which confers a diploma, but does not affect the students' right to proceed further with their education. It is set at the age when, some generations ago, young French would typically conclude their education, and includes public assessments in language arts, mathematics, and social studies (history, geography, and civics). It is being modernized, with additional certifications of competence in a foreign language, computing, and art history, and is accompanied by "a common base of fundamental knowledge and skills" (le socle commun de connaissance et de competences) that all young French are to master. Interestingly, documented mastery of these fundamental competences, which are based on the earlier efforts I named two posts back, is now a requirement for students to gain this national diploma. This assessment requirement began in 2011, and presumably didn't go smoothly, since already it is being reformed and simplified; but this is a noble effort, one we should be following and preparing to contribute to; for "no student should have an education that is less than that provided by other states or other countries" (Stewart, A World-Class Education, 83). And I submit that age 15 is the right time for this assessment, since that, the end of common schooling, is when young French begin to diverge in their paths between general and vocational education, a feature also of the top education system, Switzerland's, which we would be wise to follow in this respect, as well.

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