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Two Rivers Performance Assessments of Critical Thinking

How can we measure critical thinking and problem solving skills independently from subject knowledge?

Two Rivers Public Charter School have designed, tested and implemented meaningful assessment of complex cognitive skills through rubrics and performance tasks. Students with their teachers then use the rubrics to evaluate their performance on the tasks and identify concrete steps for improvement.

HundrED 2019


HundrED has selected this innovation to

HundrED 2019

HundrED 2018

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May 2022
If we hope to help all students be effective critical thinkers and problem solvers, we need not only to give students the opportunities to think deeply and make their thinking visible, but also to provide them with targeted feedback on how to refine their reasoning and problem solving skills.

About the innovation

What is Two Rivers Assessment?

Formative and summative assessment can provide useful insight into the gaps in a child’s knowledge and can provide meaningful information to help teachers to improve their practice in certain areas.However, when trying to evidence the effective teaching of more nuanced skills, for example, critical thinking, it can be challenging to demonstrate that this learning is taking place.

When looking at test results, teachers can be unclear about whether the student is struggling with a specific maths problem due to gaps in content knowledge, or if they have not formed problem-solving skills. Similar problems can arise in other content areas.This means that the data collected is not always reliable and makes it challenging for teachers to know where to focus their efforts.

In order to ensure children become critical thinkers to enable them to succeed in their future career, they must be able to demonstrate that they can apply these skills in previously unseen contexts.

In nations that utilize test-based accountability, like the United States, the lack of reliable assessments of critical thinking skills can create incentives for educators to focus too narrowly on the core content and basic skills that existing assessments are able to measure.

Two Rivers Public Charter School is a high achieving school in Washington, DC, USA. The school decided it wasn’t enough to allow the traditional methods of assessment to define success for their student, so they created tools that could give them a unique insight into how well they were meeting the needs of the students.

The assessments focus on critical thinking and problem solving, which is broken up into 5 constructs; ‘Effective Reasoning,’ ‘Problem Solving,’ ‘Decision Making,’ ‘Schema Development and Activation,’ and ‘Innovation and Creativity.’The idea is that these cognitive skills are content neutral and so should be able to be applied across the curriculum. Children are challenged to apply these skills outside of the original project that they first learned them in.

Teachers design a set of grade band specific rubrics for each skill being assessed, written in an accessible and understandable language. Then teachers assign to students a unique task, for example, a problem involving engineering using simple materials, different from what they have encountered before. Tasks are intended to be short, taking under one hour to explain and complete. A novel opportunity to apply one of those constructs provides the school with meaningful data on the student’s ability to transfer those skills, rather than on their mastery of specific content itself.

When completing these assessment tasks, students must identify what is known, what they need to find out and ideas for solutions. In doing so, they are provided with an opportunity to have a metacognitive moment, asking themselves ‘how is this working?’, evaluating their work as they go. Students then refer to the rubric to see if they are following it.

The language used in the rubric is accessible and precise so that everyone is clear of what is expected. If a student is assessing, for example, their own effective reasoning, they will assess against each of the components given on the rubric, for example ‘validity of the claim’ or ‘relevant support’ and then judge whether they are beginning, developing, accomplished or exemplary at showing this skill, based on the criteria in each box.

The Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity is providing Two Rivers with feedback on the task design, scoring and collaboration.

Two Rivers Public Charter School was provided with several grants to develop and test the validity of their assessments. These grants included support from the Assessment for Learning Project through the Center for Innovation in Education and the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), a Breakthrough Schools Grant through City Bridge and NGLC, and through New Schools Venture Fund.

Impact & scalability

Impact & Scalability


Two Rivers Assessment takes a set of cognitive constructs that both higher education and the business world talk about - deeper learning and 21st-century skills. These tools are integrated with instructional practices in a deep and meaningful way.


Two Rivers school reports have shown growth in problem-solving and reasoning skills.
Educators are also more effectively able to target gaps and strengths and students’ mastery, which ultimately increases the proficiency of learners.


The constructs have been carefully designed so any teachers can integrate them into their classrooms. The methodology is currently being used across the whole of Two Rivers. Schools can adopt the actual rubrics and aligned instructional thinking routines and tasks - simple to adopt and integrate into curriculum and assessment plans. Schools could also understand the constructs and then develop their own assessment tools.

Academy review results
High Impact
Low Scalability
High Impact
High Scalability
Low Impact
Low Scalability
Low Impact
High Scalability
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Implementation steps

Name the Construct

Begin by naming the cognitive skill that you want students to develop

Be as concrete as possible. There are lots of terms used to describe critical thinking and problem-solving. You want to agree on the term that you will use as a school or in your classroom and what that term means. For example, we use the term effective reasoning to refer to a student’s ability to make a claim, support that claim with evidence, and develop a counterclaim.

Create a Rubric

Once you have an agreed upon construct, develop an aligned rubric that can be used to describe levels of performance within the construct.

In developing a rubric, we use the following five steps:

    1. Identify the components of the construct that you want to target. We recommend limiting this to three to five components. For example, we identified the following four components of effective reasoning: validity of the claim, relevant support, logic of the claim and support, and challenge of the question. For the validity of the claim, we look for students to make a relevant claim related to the topic. For relevant support, we look for students to identify reasonable evidence that supported their claim. For the logic of the claim, we look for students to link the evidence that they identified to the claim that they are making. Finally, for the challenge of the question, we look for students to formulate potential counterclaims that challenge their initial claim.

    2. Create a scale for scoring work across dimensions. We score our work on a four-point scale where 1 is beginning, 2 is developing, 3 is accomplished, and 4 is exemplary. When creating the scale, place core expectation for all students in the middle of the scale (in our case at a level 3) to acknowledge that students have room to grow in scores below that middle score. However, having a score or scores above that basic expectation acknowledges that learning continues and it is possible to exceed expectation with higher scores.

    3. Write descriptors for the core expectations on the rubric. Using the middle-level score on your rubric, write what the basic level of expectations are for each of the components that you identified. You want to make sure that each descriptor is mutually exclusive and identifies a unique component of the thinking that you want students to do.

    4. Complete the continuum of scores on the rubric. Once you have identified the core expectations in the middle of the rubric fill in the rest of the rubric with an eye to creating a progression of skill development with each of the components. For example, for the validity of the claim component of effective reasoning, we identified that our accomplished expectation for 6th – 8th graders were that they make a reasonable claim based on at least two sources. For developing, we identified that students would make a reasonable claim that only reference one of the sources. We further suggested that exemplary students would draw not only on given sources but also their background knowledge in making a claim.

    5. Use the rubric with students and revise. Once you have created a rubric, use it with students. Evaluate student work with the rubric and identify places that are ambiguous or confusing and revise the work accordingly.

Design a Performance Assessment
After creating the rubric, create a performance task that requires students to do the thinking that you want to assess.

Consider when are authentic times and places when students may need to use the type of thinking that you are targeting. Then create an opportunity for students to do that kind of thinking. In the design of the task, you want to scaffold questions strategically so that they elicit student thinking. In addition, you want to make sure that you identify questions that target each component of the rubric discretely. Last but not least, because the thinking is the focus of what you want to assess, you need to remove all other elements that get in the way of gaining evidence of student thinking. For example, if reading is a challenge for students either lower the reading demands or read texts to students so that they can focus their energies on making their thinking visible.

Align Instruction
Consider how you will teach students the different types of thinking

After creating rubrics and performance assessments, consider how you will teach students the types of thinking in which you want them to engage. Identify thinking routines, or simple procedures consisting of a few steps that provide a framework for focusing attention on specific thinking moves (Ritchhart et. al, 2011). Then apply these thinking routines regularly across multiple assignments in class.

Ritchhart, Ron; Church, Mark; and Morrison Karin. Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco, CA: Josey Bass-Bass, 2011.

Close the Data Loop

Give students your performance assessment.

Once you have begun teaching toward the constructs through thinking routines, give students your performance assessment. Score students on each component of your rubric. Conference with students to provide the data and create a plan for improvement in targeted components of the thinking routine.

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