Evidence Based Science Education

This blog will examine research and evidence as it relates to science education and science education issues. It is an attempt to bring together the science of education and the practice of education.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The role of assessment in Evidence Based Science Teaching

Research tells us that good assessment plays a key role in the teaching and learning process. But what kind of assessments should teachers be using? How can teachers be intentional and efficient about the use of assessment? How do teachers keep from being overwhelmed by assessment tasks?

For the purposes of this essay assessment is broadly defined as any intentional practice that allows the teacher to intentionally track the progress of students toward a defined learning outcome. It is important to give the definition of assessment here because the word is often given other meanings, such as, referring only to a standardized test, or state assessment, or very broadly defined when teachers grade everything that a student produces.

Many teachers get overwhelmed by the task load of grading student assessments, yet as we know assessment, and more importantly the feedback students get from teachers based on assessment is a key to learning. So how can we know that a student has learned while still keeping teachers sane?

The answer is that teachers need to be very thoughtful about what really constitutes evidence of student learning. When thinking about assessment, teachers should ask themselves, what evidence would show me how my students are progressing toward specific learning goals? This is where standards based report cards can be wonderful, but even if your school or district doesn’t use standards based report cards, a teacher should still be able to set up their own grade book in a way that it becomes a record of evidence for learning.

Science teachers are great at showing students different ways of capturing and presenting data to make it meaningful yet are often terrible at setting up their grade books to do the same thing. At worst many grade books are a mere record of how many students completed nightly homework assignments rather than a body of evidence that shows what a student does and does not understand. Many times this is even true of “standards based grade books”. Teachers should ask themselves this: Does my grade book reflect what my students know and are able to do? Does it allow me to see what my students’ strengths and weaknesses are? Can I use it to explain to parents what students do and do not understand?

For a grade book to be truly standards based and fit into a scheme of evidence based teaching it must go beyond just reorganizing the traditional grade book in different way, it must function different than the traditional grade book.

Now that the Colorado State Academic standards, as well as many of the national standards efforts, includes both content and skills at a grain size that you can collect evidence for, setting up this type of grade book should be much easier. It all comes down to: What are the content and skills that students should master? What evidence will tell you that they have mastered it? What are the steps it takes to get to mastery? What evidence would show you when a student has achieved those steps and is ready to move on?

So an evidence based, standards based grade book contains markers about a student’s progression toward mastery as well as indicators that a student has achieved mastery. This is very different from the traditional model where the grade book ranks how well a student did on individual assignments. In an evidence based, standards based system how well students do on individual assignments is secondary to charting a student’s progress toward mastery. While seeing how well a student completed individual assignments may provide some valuable information, it does not necessarily get at the goal of a class, for students to progress to mastery.

This kind of system also allows a teacher to be more selective in what they grade, making them more efficient. And this efficiency is not just what the teacher grades and put into the grade book, but also about the types of assignments that they give students, thus making their student’s more efficient. Students often complain about school or homework that they view as busy work. The reason students see it as busy work as they don’t know the purpose behind the work and where the work will lead. So even if it isn’t busy work to the teacher, it can still be perceived as busy work by students. If students know, instead, that when they have an assignment, it is part of a bigger, well thought out system, the less chance they will think that it is just busy work.

So what does kinds of assignments should kids spend their precious time doing and what types of assignments should teachers spend their precious time grading? Only those that provide evidence of a student’s progress toward mastery. This still encompasses a wide variety of assignments, but should free up both the teacher and student from unnecessary work, because all work should have meaning for both the student and teacher.