Assessments for the 21st Century

Winter 2017

By Maya Bialik, Charles Fadel

Independent schools have long been searching for better ways to prove their value, and in a data-centric world, there is enormous pressure to measure, measure, measure, and abide by partially obsolete college entrance requirements.

Yet there is a strong consensus that the majority of currently used large-scale assessments are not comprehensive enough to measure what really counts for 21st-century student success for life, including, but not limited to, employability. To deeply reexamine the content focus of assessment as well as the methods and their strengths and weaknesses, the Center for Curriculum Redesign (CCR) created the Assessment Research Consortium (ARC), of which the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) is a founding member. The overall goal is to deepen the relationship between learning and assessment, and move from sorting students toward continuous improvement of all aspects of the learning experience. In fact, it may be useful to redefine assessment to mean, more broadly, any source of evidence of learning.

Of the recommendations provided in a 2013 report from the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education and in the 2014 Pearson Paper “Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment,” three of the key findings focus on the content of assessments:

  • Assessments must fully represent the competencies that the complex world demands.1
  • Assessments must accommodate the full range of value outcomes — not focus solely on narrowly defined cognitive/academic achievement.2
  • What we choose to assess is what will end up being the focus of instruction.3

Central to all of the work of ARC is the CCR Four-Dimensional Framework,4 precisely designed to address the first two findings (see sidebar on page 19). The framework was developed by analyzing and synthesizing the challenges of the 21st century.5 It also supports a multidimensional “whole child” holistic view of the learner. In aligning assessments to help students and employees meet the challenges of an increasingly complex world, it is important to note that current knowledge areas covered in curricular subjects will need to be carefully redesigned in order to include modern disciplines as well as a select set of traditional disciplines, with options for interdisciplinary exploration and themes6 woven throughout. That said, there are three more learning dimensions that assessments will need to measure: skills, character, and meta-learning.

In addition to gaining deeper understandings of relevant knowledge, learners need to be ready to apply their knowledge to real-world questions and problems through 21st-century “4C skills”: creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. They also need to apply their developing character qualities (mindfulness, curiosity, courage, resilience, ethics, and leadership) to their own learning and lives. Finally, learners need to engage a fourth learning dimension that amplifies all the other dimensions: meta-learning. This includes the learners’ ability to reflect and adapt to progress in the other three dimensions as well as their beliefs and attitudes about their capacity to learn and manage their learning challenges. Taken together, the CCR framework synthesizes the demands of the 21st century and the needs of a holistic learner into one integrated framework for guiding the future of assessment and learning progress.

The third key finding points to the larger implications of which content schools and organizations choose to assess. Assessment can no longer be considered in isolation from learning; it deeply affects classroom instruction and workforce training experiences of all learners. Therefore, the content to be assessed must have clear value to all learners, and must support teachers’ and trainers’ learning goals and methods in their classrooms.

Based on research by the National Research Council’s Committee on the Foundations of Assessment,7 the ARC report suggests a “Circled Triangle” assessment model as a useful guide to the future work of CCR’s Assessment Research Consortium (see graphic).

The center triangle consists of three components:

  1. Learning Model of Competency Development — the effective research-supported learning pathways and progressions toward developing proficiency in a specific competency or set of competencies that underlie collections of assessment evidence and their interpretations;
  2. Collection of Demonstrated Observable Evidence — the design and execution of research-based performance tasks that effectively demonstrate observable levels of development in a specific competency or set of competencies; and
  3. Interpretation of Evidence to Support Claims — the analysis of the collected evidence from assessments to support claims about the learning of individuals or groups, and the levels of confidence in those claims. This can also include suggestions or prescriptions for further individual or collective learning, program, or research improvement, and commentary on appropriate and inappropriate applications of the assessment results.

The outer circle represents the appropriate (and inappropriate) external applications and uses of the assessment findings and data. The link among evidence, interpretation, and appropriate action is not guaranteed, and must not be taken for granted. Even with high-quality assessments in which all three triangle components are carefully designed and executed and are well aligned with each other, the assessment results can be applied inappropriately to actions that the assessment was not designed to support, or not be applied at all, due to institutional capacity limitations (e.g., lack of leadership coherence or organizational resources).

The final, important aspect of the use of assessment results in the outer circle is the need to promote public awareness and understanding of the essential role assessment plays in educational performance improvement. These wider public education, outreach, and public relations functions are crucial in gaining the support needed from all education stakeholders to help move assessment and systems of education more toward 21st-century goals and student success.


1. The Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, 2013.

2. Peter Hill and Michael Barber, “Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment,” Pearson, 2014.

3. The Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, 2013.

4. Charles Fadel, Maya Bialik, and Bernie Trilling, Four-Dimensional Education: The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed, Center for Curriculum Redesign, 2015.

5. Charles Fadel, “21st Century Competencies,” Independent School, Winter 2016,

6. The CCR framework themes include digital literacy, environmental literacy, global literacy, information literacy, design thinking, and systems thinking.

7. With additional contributions from other expert researchers (such as John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, “The Social Life of Information,” Harvard Business Review, 2000).

Maya Bialik

Maya Bialik is the research manager at the Center for Curriculum Redesign and a coauthor of Four-Dimensional Education: The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed (CCR 2015). For more information about ARC and CCR, visit

Charles Fadel

Charles Fadel is the founder and chairman of the Center for Curriculum Redesign. He is a coauthor of Four-Dimensional Education: The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed (CCR 2015). For more information about ARC and CCR, visit