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Assessing Science: Isn't There a Better Way?

Science Under the Microscope

Assessing Science: Isn't There a Better Way?Sometimes it seems like Mathematics and Language Arts teachers have it easy. Okay, I wouldn't actually say that one of them because I know how hard they work under the enormous pressure of standardized tests that many Science teachers like me do not have to face.

I don't envy the high-stakes tests, but I do sometimes wish that my subject area could be assessed adequately with multiple-choice questions and clear-cut responses. How much easier would my job be if I could determine whether a student mastered Science by administering a "bubble sheet" test?

Sadly, far too many policy makers believe that it is possible to measure Science knowledge this way. In my own state of North Carolina, for example, a multiple-choice test (modeled on the Math and Reading tests) is being given to fifth- and eighth-grade students at the end of each year. It's generally accepted by the public, I fear, that anything can be tested in this manner.

We wouldn't dream of assessing a musician without hearing her play her instrument and we would clearly be remiss if we attempted to judge the cooking skills of a student without watching him cook. Yet, many educational agencies are implementing (or considering) plans to test Science mastery without requiring students to do any Science. As ridiculous as this sounds, the greater problem is the money and time that are being wasted on these measures when it is clear that something else must be done.

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If I had the power to design and carry out standardized tests in Science, I would create a hands-on, problem-based assessment that would use clearly defined rubrics and simple procedures to ensure fair determination of student ability. I would take the best parts of the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) tests and lab practical exams from my own experience, and create something both effective and efficient. Students would have a set time to produce driving questions, write testable hypotheses, design simple experiments, and analyze the outcomes. Scores would be weighted to stress the categories that require firm understanding of the Scientific Method and allowances would provided for passing scores even when experiments do not supply expected results.

Of course, there are many roadblocks to such a plan.

  • First, it would almost certainly be prohibitively expensive to conduct.
  • Second, great pains would have to be taken to ensure objective grading that was standards- and norm-referenced.
  • Above all, students would need to experience hands-on lab activities all year long to prepare them for the assessment.

But, for once, "teaching to the test" and "teaching your curriculum" would not be mutually exclusive.