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Microsoft Exec Calls for More Research, Testing on Soft Skills

Lenovo's annual ThinkTank conference in Washington D.C. this week is more technology focused than research oriented, but its opening keynote address provided some interesting tidbits for research-watchers, too.

Anthony Salcito, the vice president for Microsoft Corp.'s worldwide public sector education division, said he has heard similar education concerns from education leaders in countries around the world, be they developing or fully industrialized, including:

• Improving students' employability and readiness for entering a global workforce;
• Dealing with a "do more with less" fiscal environment for school budgets;
• Identifying and spreading innovative teaching practices; and
• Personalizing education for different students.

"Governments around the world are talking about the same thing," Salcito said. "We've got to get from showing data to using data to drive instruction, and to do that, we have to know what questions we want the data to answer."

Salcito argued that current assessments and benchmarking tools have not adapted to changes in what educators and policymakers want students to know and do. Rather, he said, "We test the things that are most easily replaced by a search engine," such as memorized facts and procedures. "We need to think about the ways technology changes the way we think about skills."

This approach has been voiced before, but it has become more relevant, not just because of the increasing federal and state focus on college and career readiness, but also on recent high-profile cheating scandals like the one still boiling over in Atlanta. Tests that require more complex thought and demonstration of problem-solving ability are harder to grade, but also tend to be harder to game.

Salcito pointed to one attempt to rethink what we measure in education, the Assessment and Teaching of 21st-Century Skills initiative. It's an eight-country research partnership housed at the University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia, working to identify and develop assessments for soft skills such as communication, collaboration, problem-solving, citizenship, and digital fluency.

It will be interesting to see whether and how our domestic efforts to develop "next-generation" assessments take into account a broader notion of what we want education to accomplish.

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