By Jeanette Edelstein
I loved science as a young kid. A paper model of the solar system hung across my bedroom ceiling. I marveled at the sight of tiny onions pulled from grass clumps in my backyard. And I dutifully gave my cats checkups with the real stethoscope I got from my dad.
So what happened in middle school, when I became completely disengaged from scientific explorations like these?
Now, years later, looking back on the mounting research piled on my desk about the importance of letting students act like scientists, I think I understand. As a middle school student, sitting slumped at the lab table, running through a procedure, I knew that the teacher already knew the answer – the right answer – and I wondered why she couldn’t just tell us. If we ran the experiment correctly, we’d get the answer right; if we ran the experiment incorrectly, we’d get the answer wrong. Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, the back-of-the-book answer kept us from reflecting on the process, understanding both our triumphs and mistakes and learning how to extrapolate that process to other questions we may dream up.
Science teachers are challenged with determining how to teach a combination of factual scientific knowledge (e.g., elements, measurement, cell structure) and procedural scientific process (e.g., inquiry, observation, data collection). Today, with new standards and expectations, effective and ongoing assessment is critical to understand how well students are learning to think and act like scientists and to adjust instruction as necessary so they can master the common standards.
Assessing Inquiry Well
The focus on assessment of scientific inquiry, underscored by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), requires a significant shift in assessment design and philosophy from the traditional multiple-choice/right-or-wrong approach to a more fluid performance assessment approach. This change may cause some discomfort for both teachers and students, as both parties must get comfortable with uncertainty.
Karen Kraus, a science and technology resource teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, says students who are good at rote memorization can have the hardest time with this kind of curriculum.
“They want to know what the right answer is,” says Kraus. “The challenge is getting them more comfortable with, ‘Well, it depends on your data and how you analyze it.’”
Teachers working to meet the new standards for successful assessment of scientific inquiry and process will find that the best assessments are more subjective, time-consuming, and individualized.
Diane Lefebvre, an emerging technology consultant for Edmonton Catholic Schools in Alberta, Canada, says assessments have always been test-based.
“We’re pushing, as a district, the need for more project-based assessment and individual voice and choice,” she says.
This shift is driving a significant change in the district’s assessment practices, with more focus on formative assessment. Lefebvre admits that it’s time-consuming to assess each student as he or she works through a lab or a project but says, “that is the essence of what science is,” a process, not an answer.
To truly individualize, teachers need to offer a variety of performance assessments to understand what their students know and can do, which involves a more robust, formative assessment cycle than they may be used to. Teachers may also find that they are initially left to create these new assessments in isolation. For those who seek support, professional learning networks (PLNs) and technological tools can help them develop and share resources to meet the challenges.
Technological tools can also help teachers design and implement better performance assessments. Some tools include performance assessments that have already been designed to NGSS standards. Lefebvre likes Discovery Education Science Techbook because it has a variety of types of assessments, in addition to some traditional ones. She steers teachers to Techbook often so they can start with a bank of options as they work to meet student interests and abilities.
With a greater focus on process and performance assessment for learning, students will begin to think and work like true scientists, applying critical thinking and observational skills to their interactions with the world and feeling invested in their activities and results.
1. Measure Intentionally
The assessment process mirrors the scientific process in some important ways. Just as in any scientific inquiry, teachers want to know exactly what it is they are trying to measure before they start the process. Kraus talks about the importance of teachers being able to tie any assessment to a standard, but those standards no longer focus on discrete knowledge.
“With the incorporation of the Next Generation Science Standards, we’re trying to get away from just rote memorization and move more toward how you actually go through this [scientific] process,” says Kraus.
Lefebvre works with teachers to identify what they actually want their students to be able to do. In scientific inquiry, that includes demonstrating trial and error, encouraging experimentation, supporting arguments with scientific evidence, and considering and analyzing existing theories. “Once we have the conversation, teachers do agree that that is what science should be. Then, we have a reflective practice where we take a look at our year: Where do you embed those pieces into your curriculum? When are you giving your students an opportunity to go through the scientific process? We find places where we can replace one type of assessment with another.”
2. Focus on Process
Even factual learning and assessment should be based in scientific inquiry. For example, rather than focusing on memorization and regurgitation, teachers need to give students a chance to learn about mass in the midst of an inquiry about density or about cell structures as part of an investigation requiring work with a microscope.
“In science, that’s a mindset. Science is based in experiments,” Lefebvre says. “The whole process of experimentation—where we’re testing variables and now we’re going to have a hypothesis, and ensuring the hypothesis is based on research; and, then, formulating a literate and knowledgeable statement about why you believe this is going to happen—is something that can get lost.”
She fears that traditional assessments focus too much on the before and after while most of the learning takes place during the process in between.
Simulations and labs offer the context for process learning. Kraus uses simulations and labs to prepare students for running their own hands-on experiments. She asks them to use the simulation to consider how they might troubleshoot something that goes wrong in the actual experiment.
“To be able to visualize something that’s happening at the molecular level, you need some kind of a simulation. An interactive is always going to be better than a video, because then kids can change the conditions of the simulation,” said Kraus.
Being able to run through a series of simulations or virtual labs ensures students get enough practice with experimentation.
3. Stay Flexible
Just as learning is an ongoing process, so is assessment. Although differentiation efforts will be intense, assessment results will be most accurate if students are truly engaged in their efforts. There are many ways to offer flexibility in the assessment process. Teachers can offer more than one type of performance assessment (e.g., photo essay, digital story, or moderation of a discussion panel), more than one topic of study as an entry into concepts (e.g., animal adaptation versus plant adaptation), and multiple chances to be assessed throughout the process.
Assessing performance and process is necessarily subjective. It is no longer enough to know whether students can come up with a right answer versus a wrong answer. Teachers are now looking for how the students arrived at their answer…and even how they narrowed down the question.
Accept that subjective assessment is okay and consider incorporating self-assessment and peer review to add perspective and critique. Students who are thinking critically about their own work and that of their peers are also learning.
4. Maximize Your Resources
A robust network of colleagues may be more important now than ever before, as a large bank of performance assessments has not yet evolved. Lefebvre says, “A lot of the time it falls on the teacher to come up with something or, if schools are lucky enough to have a Professional Learning Network (PLN) amongst teachers, they can create those assessments in the school community and pass them on.”
A big part of Lefebvre’s job is helping teachers find and use the best resources. The sharing of resources and assessments saves teachers precious time and allows great performance assessments to impact more students. Discovery Education and other educational sites allow teachers to connect, build their PLNs, and share resources that work well.
Lefebvre said she appreciates that Discovery Education Science Techbook has features that consistently support teachers as they try to solidify foundational knowledge, both their own and that of their students. She finds herself highlighting the Explain section, the Model Lesson, and Elaborate with STEM most frequently.
The Explain section, according to Lefebvre, allows students to become grounded in the scientific process because it is consistent across topics: every Explain section includes the question, the background, previous experience, and then asks students to try to answer the question. The Model Lesson can be particularly important for teachers who may have grown up practicing directed inquiry and can now benefit from examples of guided or self-directed inquiry. Elaborate with STEM provides options for different projects under one topic, so teachers can assess students equally but provide individual choice.
According to Lefebvre, teachers are able to use existing assessments, including rubrics, to personalize learning and that leads to students who are more engaged. In the Science Techbook section about sound and pitch, “The topic had three different selections: one was based on animals, another one was based on sports, and another one was based on music.”
Putting it All Together
A good assessment is always based on a clear sense of what the assessor is trying to measure. The challenge in performance-based assessments in science is that what you are trying to measure may not be immediately clear: it may not be discrete knowledge, but rather, it is likely to be a process or method. By designing assessments that require students to define, explain, or replicate a process, you will be well on your way to assessing science in a deep and relevant way.
Students who can demonstrate their processes and defend their findings will learn the foundational science along the way, be more likely to enjoy engaging in science and probably do just fine on whatever standardized exams they run across. Personally, I will stick to stargazing, attempting to grow my own vegetables, and taking care of my two kittens in spite of having lost my stethoscope decades ago.