The pressure to compete on a global scale can be a double-edged sword for education.

On the one hand, it enables the cross-pollination of ideas, best practice, and a comparability of qualifications between nations, which makes it easier for people to move countries for their studies or work. On the other hand, this encourages an educational arms race between nations, with countries across the world under pressure to ensure the skills needed for the future workplace are reflected in their curriculum, and that their attainment results compare favourably.

One task for awarding bodies is how to best assess ‘21st-century skills’ such as critically evaluating sources of information, creative thinking and problem-solving. So where should they start?

Choose the right assessment format

As curricula all over the world change to cover fewer topics in more depth, while focusing on nurturing skills needed for the future workforce, it is important to consider changing the way we assess students as well.

The main aim is to choose a method which effectively assesses the subject being taught. This can also include the development of skills such as critical evaluation or problem solving, as well as support the development of effective communication or team skills. For example, peer assessment might be an appropriate way to measure a student’s contribution to a collaborative problem solving question; digital tracking could record the process by which a student sources and selects relevant information. Technology can enable new methods of assessing such skills.

Don’t be afraid of data

It is now easier than ever to compare qualifications between nations. This has led to international studies such as PISA and TIMMS, which use data gathered from sample cohorts across participating countries, to measure education performance and to rank each country’s education and attainment results on a scoreboard.

Whilst many experts argue that too much importance is placed on these rankings by policymakers, the data does help show what works and what doesn’t. By viewing how the top countries teach and assess their students, reforms can be considered to boost a country’s own rankings within the system. For example in the UK there is a growing adoption of the maths mastery teaching method, prevalent in Singapore and parts of China which are consistent top-performers for maths in the PISA reports.

Use technology

Digital technology is playing an increasingly important role in schools worldwide both for teaching and formative assessment. There are several programmes available that offer online practice games for maths or grammar, levelled eBooks that can be downloaded on a tablet or smartphone, and other interactive resources available via online platforms.

Technology has also helped in the growth of mobile learning and long distance learning. The internet has enabled educators and awarding bodies to reach students across borders, with students from developing countries able to access advanced educational courses such as massive open online courses, MOOCs. This brings the potential for such students to gain relevant skills, knowledge and qualifications that they may not have previously had access to.

Despite this, most countries are still using pen and paper exams for high-stakes assessment of school leavers and university students. With digital technologies being used increasingly in learning and formative assessment, it is not too far a stretch to assume that summative assessment will soon be delivered digitally, better replicating modern workforce skills required in the 21st century.

To read more on this topic, download our white paper ‘Qualifying the skills of the future: Education and assessment reform around the world’.