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The Battle Between Standardized Tests and 21st-Century Skills

Digital Portfolios as a Tool for 21st-Century Skill Development
Colleen Potter
May 19, 2021

If you spend some time looking around the internet, you’ll quickly find that there are a lot of opinions floating around on grades, standardized tests, and education in general.

Taking a look at #EduTwitter, it’s clear that there is much room for improvement in our education system.

But what, exactly, would educators change if given the opportunity?

We recently asked just that to 19 educators, as part of season 2 of Competencies without a Classroom.

If you had a magic wand and could change one thing about the education system, what would it be?

After compiling and reviewing all of the answers, we saw a few commonalities. Themes that emerged included:

  • The removal of grade-based promotion (i.e. not promoting students to the next grade based on age)
  • The removal of standardized tests
  • Going gradeless
  • Creating a more inclusive education system

Over half of the educators we asked, responded that the biggest change they'd like to see was related to grades and/or testing. Of this group, 40% indicated they would remove standardized testing completely.

So, what is it about standardized testing that isn’t aligning with today’s education system? Why is it that educators are calling for its removal?

Where Do Standardized Tests Fit in Today’s World?

The negative impacts of standardized testing are widely known today. These include the stress and pressure they place on students and teachers, time spent teaching to the test rather than on subject matter content and skill development, and the impact these tests can have on student self-esteem. The practice of standardized testing also treats learners as if they are all the same. The standardized nature of these tests implies that students learn the same way, demonstrate learning the same way, and come from similar cultural and linguistic backgrounds. These tests fail to account for the uniqueness and differences among learners.

Standardized tests have been around for many years, with standardized aptitude tests becoming common practice around World War 1. Following this, standardized achievement tests were introduced after World War II as a means of ensuring graduating students had literacy skills and numeracy skills amid a belief that the quality of the education system was declining with the curriculum reform that occurred.

Though more than 75 years have passed, and we now know the negative impacts of standardized tests, they are still being used as a one-size-fits-all approach of identifying a student’s aptitude and achievement of traditional academic content and numeracy and literacy skills. These tests are failing to show the whole picture (for example, a student’s creativity.)

Beyond that, while our world is rapidly changing and the skills valued in today’s workforce are different from ever before and emphasize adaptability, critical thinking, curiosity, and problem-solving, these standardized tests remain and continue to measure the basic aptitude and achievement skills and knowledge valued in previous generations’ workforces.

We know that a wide range of 21st-century skills like problem-solving, resilience, and creativity are growing in demand and that these are skills are unable to be measured using standardized tests, so why is this practice still a key part of the education system?

Enter an alternative. The digital portfolio.

Digital Portfolios as a Framework for 21st-Century Skills

While digital portfolios may not be the first thing that comes to your mind as a possible solution, they could be a welcome alternative to standardized tests.

Rather than a uniform test that treats all learners the same and measures basic content knowledge and skills, digital portfolios allow students to show evidence of their learning, understanding and “soft skills”, as well as their thinking, in a way that resonates with them. Portfolios showcase the whole learner and the individual learner, rather than making the focus of their learning their test score.

Read: Telling the whole story with digital portfolios: An interview with Instructional Technology Coordinator, Daniel Whitt

Additionally, digital portfolios naturally lend themselves to the development of 21st-century skills, like collaboration, creativity, and problem-solving, as well as communication and critical thinking.

Digital Portfolios, Social Skills, and Collaboration as 21st-Century Skills

Social skills like collaboration and communication skills are in high demand in the professional world, as almost all jobs require you to work with others in some capacity.

Collaboration is a skill that students are continuously working on developing in the classroom, through group projects, peer feedback and class discussions. By incorporating a digital portfolio into the class, students are able to demonstrate the development of their collaboration skills first-hand.

Ideas to promote collaboration in the classroom with digital portfolios:

  • Have students work on a group project directly in the portfolio. Students can brainstorm with one another in their group space, add their part of the project, and comment on other group member’s work
  • Have students interview a community member or classmate and upload this interview to their portfolio, explaining how they demonstrated active listening and what role this plays in collaboration and people skills
  • Encourage the practice of feedback by having students participate in peer assessments. Students can upload documents like a rubric or success criteria and provide their feedback in multiple different ways (audio, video, text) directly to students in a group space

Additionally, digital portfolios promote the development of self-reflection, critical thinking and self-awareness, all of which are key skills for students to develop. These skills also play a critical role in one’s broader social skills. By having students add evidence of their learning, documenting their progress and growth over time, they are better able to dissect how they learn and respond to feedback, gaining a better understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, and how these play into collaborative environments and leadership skills.

Digital Portfolios and Creativity as a 21st-Century Skill

Creativity is in the top five in-demand skills of 2025, according to the World Economic Forum, yet it’s something that standardized tests fail to measure.

In comparison, digital portfolios allow learners to showcase their originality and creativity in a variety of formats. Not only do they allow students to be creative in the type of media they’d like to express themselves in (video recordings, audio recordings, etc.) but they allow students to upload evidence of their creativity to document and share with others.

Ideas to promote creativity in the classroom with digital portfolios:

  • Have students start a vlog, daily audio entry, or text entry, journaling their day in their individual space
  • Start a class podcast, having a different student record and share their podcast episode in the class space each day. Other students and families can comment and react to the episodes right in that space
  • Working on a construction project, piece of art or science experiment in class? Encourage students to take videos or photos throughout the process and of the final product, and upload them to their portfolio. Students can showcase the process and product, all while providing evidence of their creativity and originality skill set

Want to bring digital portfolios into your classroom or subject area? Get started with Spaces today!

If you had a magic wand, what would you change about the education system?

Do you agree with the answers shared by the educators we interviewed?

How do you think standardized tests can be changed or removed to promote 21st-century skills?

Are you using digital portfolios in the classroom? If so, we’d love to hear how!

Tweet us @spacesedu to share.

Colleen Potter

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