March 22, 2016

Dear Ollie’s Superintendent,

In the last few posts, I focused on the importance of your district’s 4Cs visionpedagogy, and culture. But perhaps no other aspect of 21st century education will test your leadership more than assessment.

Your work on assessment will require a steady hand on the tiller during these particularly challenging times. Even the term “assessment” has been given a bad name—by bad state policies, a national preoccupation with high stakes tests and an understandable popular backlash against over-testing. I hope the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will open up new opportunities for assessing what really matters, because good assessment remains an essential ingredient of 21st century education.

You simply won’t achieve your 4Cs vision unless constructive and meaningful assessment aligns with it. To help you in that effort, I offer three suggestions:


1.      Define what matters most

Don’t just announce your district’s commitment to the 4Cs. Help your teachers and your students understand the underlying components of each competency, and the indicators on a student’s path to proficiency.

It’s easy, for example, to find educators who are interested in creativity, but harder to find educators who can identity the component skills and dispositions. Rubrics can help you build a common language to define the 21st century competencies you adopt. In your case, because you are a member of EdLeader21, our 4Cs rubricswould be a very good starting point.1

The rubrics are a great resource on their own, but you and your teachers can also adapt them to your needs. For example, some of our districts have modified the rubrics and associated learning targets to make them student-friendly. Implementing the rubrics system-wide will help to create a common language, understanding and focus on the competencies that matter most in your district’s 4Cs vision.


2.      Practice what matters most

Once we created the rubrics, many of our superintendents told us that it wasn’t enough to define specific 4Cs skills, dispositions and indicators of proficiency: we needed to develop performance tasks to assess them. Performance tasks aren’t high stakes tests, or simple assessments of learning. We think of performance tasks as assessments for learning, and assessments as learning. Ultimately, they support a pedagogy that helps students demonstrate their proficiency and provides feedback to improve their performance.

Our PLCs members are doing exciting work on performance tasks. An EdLeader21 task force is developing a bank of 4Cs performance tasks that can be customized to suit a district’s needs. We are also working with Jay McTighe on an exciting pilot: 30 teachers, in 14 of our districts, are implementing a common performance taskto contrast the results between districts and states.

Unlike high-stakes tests, good performance tasks prepare students for their futures by presenting scenarios they might encounter in the “real” world. One of our EdLeader21 districts requires every teacher, every semester, to use a creative problem solving performance task in every subject. Other districts are doing great work supporting teachers’ development of performance tasks, and inviting student voice in their design. The use of performance tasks should become part of your district’s long-range plan as well.


3.      Assess what matters most

Trying to help educators focus on 21st century assessment while they weather the storm of current accountability schemes, I’ve asked them what percentage of their students’ work is focused on projects despite the pressure to prepare for state tests. Depending on their grade level, they tend to answer between 10 and 40 percent. So I ask them to imagine what would happen, in the next year or two, if they assessed all of those projects using the 4Cs. This seems to help them see new possibilities in the short term to assess what matters most.

Imagine if every project was designed to assess critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity: students and their parents could begin to get crucial feedback on the development of 21st century skills, without having to wait for state tests to catch up. For example, one of our districts has all students complete capstone projects at the end of their senior year; these projects are assessed according to the 21st century competencies they have defined.

You should also consider focusing on the production and evaluation of “student work” as an alternative to current testing. Like projects and capstones, these work products can be assessed using 21st century competencies. The work of Ron Berger, chief academic officer of Expeditionary Learning, has been particularly helpful to understand the importance of student work as well as the value of student-engaged assessment. A natural next step in the system-wide integration of 4Cs assessment would be to collect artifacts of student work and self-assessment in portfolios.

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This work on assessment is not easy, but it is central to achieving your 4Cs vision. I hope I have provided a few landmarks—defining the competencies that matter most; developing and integrating performance tasks; and focusing on projects, student work, and portfolios—that will help you navigate the 21st century assessment landscape.

As I said at the beginning: this work will definitely hone your leadership skills! Next time, we will focus on how to think about the roles you and your leadership team play in this work. Until then, keep up the great work!





1 For those of you reading this blog who are AASA members, contact me and I will provide you a sample creativity rubric so you can see what one looks like.


Question for superintendents: Many of you are trying to embrace meaningful assessments that focus on skills that matter to your students’ 21st century success. Please comment on an assessment strategy you’ve employed to help students and their parents understand their strengths and weaknesses in the 21st century competencies your district has identified.

Ken Kay currently serves as CEO of EdLeader21, a professional learning community that he founded for school superintendents and school heads. He is founding president of P21. Ken co-authored The Leader's Guide to 21st Century Education: 7 Steps for Schools and Districts.