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Ribbon HUNDRED 2019
How can we measure critical thinking and problem solving skills independently from subject knowledge?

Two Rivers Performance Assessments of Critical Thinking

Washington DC, USA
Two Rivers School have designed, tested and implemented meaningful assessment of complex cognitive skills through rubrics.

What is Two Rivers Assessment?

Jeff Heyck-Williams, Director of Curriculum and Instruction
“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.”

Jeff Heyck-Williams, Director of Curriculum and Instruction

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.  

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Innovation Overview
5 - 18
Age Group
2 994
Tips for implementation
Two Rivers' approach to assessment could be implemented with a single individual, but it is stronger when implemented in teams. Two Rivers assessment takes from approximately three months to a year to develop rubrics, performance assessments, align instruction, and begin implementing in classrooms. The only resource required is a digital platform to store student portfolios.
Contact information
HundrED Review

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.


See this innovation in action

Assessment for Deeper Learning
Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
Critical Thinking & Problem Solving


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Inspired to implement this? Here's how...

Name the Construct
Begin by naming the cognitive skill that you want students to develop
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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.
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Design a Performance Assessment
After creating the rubric, create a performance task that requires students to do the thinking that you want to assess.
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Align Instruction
Consider how you will teach students the different types of thinking
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Close the Data Loop
Give students your performance assessment.
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