Changing tests and the PM’s 2025 goal for schools

There may be a new way to assess students’ ability to collaborate and problem solve. Flickr/Lars Plougmann

Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently announced a new goal for Australian schools – they would reach the top five ranked school systems in the world for reading, mathematics and science by 2025.

The ranking the prime minister looked to was the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA, a worldwide sample of assessment by 15 year-old school students.

But PISA is set to change. With new technological and other innovations changing the way we assess students, we can now look beyond students’ ability to read, write or do math.

So called “soft skills” like collaboration and communication have been notoriously difficult to assess. But now the Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S) project, which is sponsored by Cisco, Microsoft and Intel is breaking new ground in assessing these vital skills.

The incorporation into PISA of such skills assessment should mean a great deal for the Prime Minister’s new goal as we expand what skills we can measure, and what skills we value in education.

Different thinking

The project, which is directed from the Assessment Research Centre at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, has developed a way to analyse and understand collaborative problem-solving.

Tech savvy kids solving problems is nothing new, but it has had little currency in education academia so far. Our research is taking information and communication technology (ICT) literacy in a new direction.

The project analyses the collaborative problem-solving and learning of students between the ages of 11 and 15. It combines the assessment of their collaborative and social networking skills with new forms of reporting that emphasise skill development rather than a test score.

No teacher has to assess by observing or scoring the performance of the students. It is all automatically scored with a report provided, detailing what the student is ready to learn and how collaboration skills can be developed.

How does it work?

The whole system is placed on a cloud platform, which has a massive capacity. We can expect in the future that up to 100,000 students globally may be attempting the assessment tasks at the same time.

Students work in pairs. In every task, each student has access to specific pieces of information that the other does not have. In one task, students must try to protect a warehouse – one student controls the cameras that monitor each of the hallways in the warehouse, the other student monitors coverage of the alleyways and needs to communicate that information to the camera person.

Students can communicate through a chat box, but cannot speak to one another directly. There is an algebraic relationship between the number of rows, columns and the number of cameras needed to provide complete coverage. Together the two students determine what this relationship is and then generalise to any number of rows and columns.

The best students will examine different ways of approaching the problem in order to test their hypothesis about the relationship. The student’s capacity to understand the perspective of another person, the ability to analyse a problem and their capacity to generalise through an algebraic expression are all assessed.

Cutting edge

The inclusion of this new skills assessment in PISA will mean that all students will be tested in collaborative problem-solving from 2015. This will have far-reaching effects on governments, education systems and on teaching and learning processes in schools.

The Prime Minister’s goal focuses on reading or mathematics and science. Science will be combined with collaborative problem-solving in 2015. This shift means that the Australian curriculum is also up to date with changes that are taking place around the world. Some of the research indicates that collaboration and social interaction is not necessarily related to performance on standardised tests of reading and mathematics.

It is unknown whether collaborative problem solving relates to the development in science. However the skills required to collaborate and solve problems are similar to those that scientists use and how they develop their skills of inductive and deductive thinking. These are necessary skills for problem-solving and collaboration.

The work of the 21st-century project also takes information literacy into a new area. It examines how students learn through social networks and social media. Students are encouraged to become developers of intellectual and social capital of a group of people rather than working solo. If these became part of our national agenda and a National curriculum we would be well ahead of the rest of the world.

We need to help children take their first steps in getting the right skills for the 21st century. Flickr/nettsu

This is an entirely new way of assessing these types of skills and Australia is at the vanguard.

The results and materials of the project was launched in Amsterdam in July. In January 2013 the system will go live, and will be available to every country in the world (providing a suitable technology infrastructure exists).

They will join the initial group of Australia, Singapore, Finland, Costa Rica, the United States and the Netherlands.

Web 3.0

If we think of how the internet has progressed, it’s had three distinct evolutions. Web 1.0 emphasised access to information – users surfed the web looking for new knowledge.

With Web 2.0, we entered an era of interactivity between users, where people can interact and talk online. Skype and other social media epitomised this change, and this is the level at which the ATC21S is operating.

The next generation of Web 3.0 will see the internet learning from interactions between people, storing and updating their information. The next iteration of teaching and learning materials will emerge from here.

We can then use the internet to learn about people and use that information to teach. ATC21S will be at the forefront of this latest extension of the World Wide Web.

For more information visit and view a video on the project here.

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