Nord Anglia Education
Nord Anglia
May 17, 2024

In the US, an assessment revolution is coming

Insights Assessment Revolution - Insights Assessment Revolution
There’s a saying in education circles: ‘we treasure what we measure’. A new partnership in the US is testing the inverse: if we change what we measure can we change what we treasure?

Last year, ETS, the nonprofit US testing giant that writes and administers tests like the Graduate Record Exams (GRE) and TOEFL (an English language test), teamed up with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, an influential educational nonprofit, to build assessments to capture not just academic disciplines like math and science, but also crucial skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication—skills employers say they want, parents know kids need, and teachers have limited time to teach due to the demands of district and state standards.

Their goal? To dismantle major elements of the architecture of learning.

“Everywhere you look in education, the outcomes of the current K-12 and higher education system are at best, uneven, and at worst, completely failing,” says Amit Sevak, CEO of ETS, the billion-dollar nonprofit testing giant. “We're focusing on did you get an A or B in biology, or science if you're an elementary or middle school, as opposed to what are the underlying skills that are actually going to have relevance for the world of work in the world of society?”

Dr Elise Ecoff, Chief Education Officer for Nord Anglia Education, sees the move in the US as positive. “A focus only on things that can be measured numerically or with omnibus grades isn't enough,” she says. Grades are important to gauge academic progress, but there are so many other ways in which kids develop and grow. Until recently, measuring growth in these human skills has been much more nuanced and complex.

Partnerships like ETS-Carnegie aim to change that. This means more tools to support students, Ecoff believes: “We know these transferrable skills are what allows students to be successful in all facets of their lives.”


Momentum has been building

Competency-based education is of course not new. The Competency-based Education Network (C-BEN) and the Aurora Institute have long championed better, richer learning experiences for students and developed tools to measure and capture their progress. The Mastery Transcript was created in 2017 to address the fact that colleges needed a way to understand different forms of assessment beyond popular US tests like the SAT or a student’s accumulated grades or grade point average (GPA).

Many US states or districts have identified the skills young people will need to thrive in school and work, and distilled them with titles like Learner Profiles or Profiles of a Graduate. Internationally, the OECD, which administers the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test of reading, math, and science taken by 500,000 kids in 79 countries every three years, has been developing optional tests to complement the academic ones since 1997.

That effort includes testing that measures collaborative problem solving, global competencies and creative thinking. “The advent of AI should push us to think harder of what makes us human,” Andreas Schleicher, the head of the education unit of the OECD, often says when defending the need to recognise and assess a broader range of skills. If we are not careful, he often says, the world will be educating “second-class robots and not first-class humans.”

And Nord Anglia is rolling out a skills-based development framework this year. The international schools group identified six “C’s”: critical, creative, collaborative, compassionate, committed and curious. Three strengths underpin each skill. For example, collaboration requires listening well, sharing ideas and being able to take feedback. Students are not graded on being collaborative, but rather encouraged to develop these skills by noticing and documenting them. “You're never going to get an A in creativity or be 96% creative,” says Ecoff. “It has to be seen as a measure of growth.”

But so far, the tools to recognise these skills have been limited. And if the recognition of the importance of skills is not new, the pace of change and who is calling for it is. In the US, parents are opting out of traditional education; globally, absenteeism is skyrocketing, and employers continue to complain that graduates are ill-prepared for work. Nord Anglia’s research on Gen Z shows they too feel unprepared. That has led the heavyweights most vested in the status quo—like ETS—to be unlikely advocates for change.


Why now?

Employers have long argued that students who come to them are unprepared for the workplace. According to a 2019 study from the National Association of Colleges and Employers in the US, the majority of employers believe that critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork are essential skills for workforce performance, yet college graduates lack them.

The World Economic Forum surveys global powerhouse companies to ask which skills they are currently hiring for and what they think will be important for applicants in the near future. The top skills on the rise are creative thinking and analytical thinking—with curiosity and lifelong learning close behind.

Ecoff sees a major shift underway, including from students. “I do think it's a moment,” she said. “Students in school want to have opportunities to really grapple with things that matter to them…they want to problem solve and take some control of their learning.” A focus on skills like critical thinking and communication fit in well with this, she argues.

Insights Assessment Revolution - Insights Assessment Revolution


A key benefit many see to a skills-led evolution in education is a levelling of the playing field. While some kids in the US take Advanced Placement tests (APs) and secure prestigious internships, many kids manage a job, care for siblings, and get by without high-priced tutors or deep social networks. The world-class time management skills they develop are not reflected to colleges or employers in the meaningful ways they should be.

Carnegie president Timothy Knowles comes to his position with a 30-year history in civil rights and a laser-like focus on equity. “If we can build tools that see the unseen, that capture authentic representations of learning wherever it happens, the opportunity is to help propel, elevate, and amplify millions more young people’s talents,” he says. Imagine the young person who wakes early to take his brothers to school, holds down a job, helps to care for those siblings, and delivers good grades. The skills needed to manage that are currently invisible to a college admissions officer who spends 3.5 seconds on his application. “These are verifiable things,” Knowles says. What’s missing are validated, reliable tools to make those skills legible to families, students, teachers and employers.

Such tools should be able to demystify what can appear so opaque about learning, shedding light on questions such as ‘Can my child communicate effectively?’ ‘Do they work with others well?’ ‘Can they think about problems rather than simply fill in a bubble?’ Such tests would provide teachers with reliable, valid, research-backed tools to reinforce what they already do, which is encourage the development of these skills.

“There are teachers all over the world using their own rubrics and measuring skills,” says Ecoff. “But it is hard for teachers in many cases to validate those.” Having something that would support them, she says, would be “incredibly helpful.”

Education leaders welcome the chance to expand the ways in which they assess students. “There's a ton of research that shows that sitting down and taking a one and done type of exam is not the best suited for our learners,” says Anibal Soler, superintendent of the Schenectady City School District in New York. “Superintendents, the state education department, so many of us are asking the question, ‘Are these assessments the right assessments?’”

The answer has been a resounding no, prompting a search for better alternatives.


Potential Hazards

Developing a skills-based transcript could lead to plenty of problems. If we end up with graded assessments of empathy, the effort will have created more harm than good. The ETS may have expansive experience with validity and reliability in testing — but not for the set of skills they aim to test (testing for knowledge and testing for skills growth are wildly different). Kids feel tremendous pressure to succeed academically. Will adding more tests, in whatever format they come, make things worse and not better? And didn’t the testing giants help create the mess we’re in?

Tamara Willis, superintendent of the Susquehanna Township School District in Pennsylvania worries that universities and employers say they want new data but might not know how to use it. “The data is only as good as your capacity to interpret it,” she notes. And schools will need staff to make sure the skills-based experiences are rigorous, evidence-based, and meaningful and not another faddish flyby, of which there are so many in education. Williams’ district put in place a service-learning requirement and quickly realized it needed a full-time person to manage those experiences. “This is going to require a lot of time to really unravel a centuries old industrial era model of learning. It's a huge shift in terms of our paradigm,” she said.

Rather than promoting equity it could undermine it by creating a two-tier system—or more of one—in which wealthier kids take APs and pursue an academic route, while low-income kids follow a skills-based route that is deemed less rigorous. “If you do performance-based assessments, there will be a faction of people that say, ‘Oh, you're lowering the standards and just getting kids through?’ It's not the lowering of standards, just providing choice on how to meet those standards,” says Soler.

It's unclear how universities will choose to use the data. In an ideal world, it gives them a richer set of data from which to select students. But it could be distorted in so many ways. Extracurriculars were meant to encourage a broadening of student experience. And yet many think they’ve become just another weapon in the arms race to get into increasingly competitive colleges.

Parents may fight the change. When Willis started to talk about competency-based education in her district, parents panicked. “They just want to know that their child is valedictorian, or that my child is salutatorian. And what is their class rank? Are they going to be able to get into college? They are fully in support of you maintaining the structure that they themselves had when they were in school.” Willis recalls one reluctant board member, a man who runs a large company in her district. She asked him, what skills did he need most? It was communication and collaboration. She explained how the exact goal was to build those. He’s coming around to the idea, she said.

ETS and Carnegie spent 2023 canvassing 20 states and meeting with education commissioners, superintendents, legislators, and teachers to gather insights, share their research and look for partners. “The demand is extraordinary,” Knowles said. Most want to be part of the pilot programme to develop the skills assessments and transcript, which will include states diverse in geography, politics, and representation.

No doubt, the process of co-creation with parents and teachers and policy makers will be messy. But the process itself may go a long way in uncovering what parents and educators want, and the kinds of systems that need to be built for that. Whether Carnegie and ETS are the leaders for this moment remains to be seen. But a system built solely for knowledge in an economy fuelled by knowledge and skills means the time is ripe for system-level change.