Last week, the P21 Partnership for 21st Century Learning held its annual Summit right here in my hometown of Washington, D.C.  I got to attend and see the unveiling of a new roadmap to help schools become 21st Century learning environments, which P21 defines in terms of specific learner outcomes and support systems. The P21 learner outcomes include — but go beyond — the 3 Rs, encompassing learning and innovation skills, information and communication technology skills, and life and career skills.

The following graph from the keynote presentation of the Kenan Institute’s James Johnson shows that over the past half century, the nature of work in the U.S. has changed dramatically. With the increasing computerization of our work environments, the share gap between routine and nonroutine work has grown, placing greater pressure on schools to prepare students to succeed in settings calling for P21’s 4 Cs of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

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Adapted from Levy, Frank and Richard J. Murnane. “Dancing with robots: Human skills for computerized work.” Third Way NEXT. 2013. ( Data provided by David Autor at MIT and updated from the original 2003 study by Autor, Levy and Murnane

A key P21 support system is assessment, and the summit presenters and participants presented a clear message that a focus on the 4 Cs, together with P21-aligned innovations such as badging and micro-certification, competency-based education, and blended learning require expanded notions of assessment and accountability.

P21 presentations by competency-based reforms leaders in New Hampshire and Iowa highlighted settings in which collecting evidence of proficiency is not limited to summative test administrations. Instead, these states are in effect assessing year-round, by teaching through projects that are at once instruction and assessment. Consistent with good assessment practice, these reforms are putting in place mechanisms to calibrate assessment-relevant judgments across teachers, schools, and districts.

The experiences of P21 exemplar schools and reforms like those in New Hampshire and Iowa demonstrate that good education reforms do not obviate assessment, but in fact require it because the need for accountability is unavoidable. For P21 learning environments, the demands on assessment are even greater due to the increasing diversity of the settings, occasions, and activities through which learners can potentially obtain and demonstrate competence.