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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 6

Assessing New Science Teachers

Connecticut's assessment of science teachers, based on standards and portfolios, certifies beginning teachers, provides them with feedback, and furthers their professional growth.

It is late afternoon in Connecticut, and three beginning science teachers are meeting to discuss the teaching portfolios they constructed recently to demonstrate their classroom work. An experienced teacher who has evaluated them, Marilyn shares her reactions. The conversation touches upon some of the complexities of teaching that many beginning teachers confront. Sue: I didn't realize how much I dominated the class with my talk until I watched the videotapes that I had to submit with my portfolio. I learned from my portfolio that when I'm under pressure, I regress to lecturing because I'm comfortable with it.Frank: The portfolio forced me to think about what my students were actually learning from their biology experiments.Marilyn: What you did to help them learn and how you can do it better is at the heart of this portfolio assessment program.Bert: You go to school for 12 years and basically sit there and listen. You go to college and work in cookbook chemistry labs for four years. Then, when you start to teach, you are suddenly told, “Oh, no! You can't talk all the time. You have to engage all your students in meaningful scientific investigation. This is hard.
Last year, 36 beginning science teachers in Connecticut developed portfolios and submitted them to the Connecticut State Department of Education for evaluation. They were participating in a new system of assessing beginning teachers that attempts to capture the complexity and variety of teaching. The performance-based system is designed to not only determine eligibility for a provisional teaching certificate (to be summative), but also provide feedback and support (to be formative).

A New Model

The Science Educator Support and Assessment Program is one of the new models of content-focused support and assessment for beginning teachers that Connecticut has been developing. Our aim in this project is to balance a new vision of science education with reasonable expectations of teachers who are in the early stages of their careers.
Before teachers can teach in a Connecticut public school, they must pass two tests. One assesses their basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics; the other assesses their knowledge of the content area in which they wish to be certified. In the past, we evaluated teachers' performance based on classroom observations, using a set of generic teaching competencies. In the future, however, Connecticut will base certification decisions on teachers' portfolios. We have tailored teaching portfolios for several subject areas, including science, mathematics, social studies, and English language arts.
Beginning science teachers are guided by a set of professional teaching standards. These standards, as well as the evaluation process, were developed by committees of science educators practicing in middle schools, high schools, colleges, and universities throughout the state.
The Science Education Program builds on the Connecticut Department of Education's previous assessment development (Pecheone et al. 1988). The program also benefited from experience gained in the Stanford Teacher Assessment Project (Collins 1993) and from work done jointly by the state department and the University of Pittsburgh for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Why Portfolios?

  • assess different dimensions of knowledge that are relevant to effective teaching;
  • focus on the work of teachers in their own classrooms;
  • provide a learning experience for teachers;
  • connect teacher assessment to student learning;
  • offer formative feedback; and
  • guide the school-based support system.
To achieve these goals, the committee and state department decided to base assessment on teaching portfolios that include examples of the teacher's writing and student work, and videotaped segments of classroom instruction (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. Science Teaching Portfolio: (Overview)

Task I - Planning for student learning

  • Description of major concepts and goals for a two-week unit.

  • Description of student characteristics relevant to learning this unit.

  • Day-to-day journal entries for the unit.

Task II- Facilitating student learning

  • Description of one student-centered lab activity during the unit.

  • Description of one unit's topic dealing with science, technology, and society issues.

  • Three 15-minute video segments of lab activity, post-lab discussion, and science-technology-society lesson.

Task III - Evaluation of student learning

  • Entire work of three students during the unit.

  • Detailed analysis of these students' learning.

  • General analysis of whole class work and learning.

  • Analysis of teaching and suggestions for future changes.

Source: Connecticut State Department of Education

We chose portfolios for three reasons. First, developing them offers a learning experience. The teacher must engage in discussions with peers, examine various materials, and, in the process of writing, transform vague ideas into clear concepts. Second, portfolios present many aspects of a teacher's work. They enable teachers to document everyday occurrences, collect and analyze students' work over time, and describe constructive changes they have made in their practice. Finally, portfolios have multiple applications. The teacher can use them when seeking employment, when asking peers for professional advice, and when sharing practice with other professionals.

Lending Support

The first two to three years of a teaching career is a critical formative period in the development of teaching styles and strategies. Accordingly, we offer science teachers two forms of support: Guidelines for Portfolio Development (Lomask 1994), which connects the portfolio tasks to the teaching standards (see fig. 2); and support meetings.

Figure 2. Excerpt from Professional Science Teaching Standards

Planning for Student' Learning

  • Understanding students. Science teachers... consider students' development, background, interests, and current conceptual understanding to create relevant and challenging activities for all learners.

  • Understanding science. Science teachers... reflect this understanding by focusing instruction on the major processes, concepts, and theories of science.

  • Science literacy. Science teachers... design instruction to develop scientific understanding, reasoning, and habits of mind by all students.

  • Contexts of science. Science teachers... create opportunities for students to examine science's contexts, including its history, reciprocal relationship with technology, ties to mathematics, and impacts on and by society.

Source: Connecticut State Department of Education

  • Pre-lab discussion: Discuss the investigation's relationship to the overall unit concepts.... Discuss alternative ways to perform the investigation.... Review with students the criteria by which their work will be evaluated....
  • Lab activity: Circulate among the groups, ask questions, and monitor progress.... Encourage students to cooperate and share ideas....
  • Post-lab discussion: Stimulate discussion about the possible applications of the investigation.... Ask questions to encourage further explorations....
Support meetings give the beginning teachers an opportunity to experience student-centered learning, and to share ideas and concerns about their teaching and portfolios. Teachers are encouraged to bring a “critical friend” (usually an experienced teacher in their field) to these meetings and to work closely with that teacher during the school year.

Performance Standards

Efforts to assess performance in any given field begin, of course, with setting professional standards for performance in that field. The science standards, as well as the portfolio tasks, require beginning teachers to carry out practices that are recommended by current science education reform initiatives, such as creating student-centered classrooms and integrated curriculums (Project 2061, 1989; National Research Council 1994).
  • Planning for Students' Learning (fig. 2)—understanding students, understanding science, science literacy, contexts of science;
  • Facilitating Students' Learning—inclusion, learning environment, instructional resources, student assessment;
  • Reaching In—Reflecting on Students' Learning—reflective practice, continual learning;
  • Reaching Out: Supporting Students' Learning—collegiality, family and community outreach.
  • offer a clear and coherent vision of teaching,
  • reflect teaching as a process of continuous learning,
  • apply to diverse teacher and student populations,
  • lead to flexible and resourceful teaching styles, and
  • reflect national, as well as local, school reform efforts.

What Is Good Teaching?

A vital by-product of defining teaching standards is the clarification of what good teaching really entails. Last year, 18 experienced science educators gathered to develop an evaluation and scoring system to interpret the teachers' work as documented in their portfolios. Before they could do this, they had to develop a clear consensus about the components of effective teaching, and for that they turned to the teaching standards (fig. 2).
  1. What does the teacher know about his or her students, and what measures has he or she taken to meet these students' needs and interests?
  2. How does the teacher demonstrate understanding of the nature, content, connections, and applications of science?
  3. In what ways does the teacher build an environment conducive to learning about science, and how does he or she encourage all students to develop scientific literacy?

Feedback as Springboard

The educators also used these guiding questions to structure a feedback form for the teachers being evaluated. The form contains an analysis of the teacher's work for each of the three dimensions, as well as an evaluation of the teacher's overall performance. (Fig. 3 shows a sample of feedback for dimension 1.)

Figure 3. Sample Feedback Form: Science Educator Support and Assessment Program

Dimension 1: Understanding Students as Learners of Science Overall, your teaching focused heavily on the academic aspect of the curriculum. We encourage you to pay greater attention to ways of engaging more of your students in the learning of chemistry.

Your portfolio showed knowledge and concern for student learning, as evidenced by:

  • A thorough description of students' academic backgrounds, attitudes, class dynamics, skills, and knowledge of science.

  • Encouragement of all students to play an active role in the lab experiment.

  • Attention to students' skill levels and academic needs. (After realizing they did not know how to graph and interpret data from experiments, you devoted time to teaching basic data graphing and mathematical analysis of linear functions. You also used text analysis methods to help students acquire text reading and notetaking skills.)

However, your portfolio showed that not all students were engaged in learning chemistry. This may be due to:

  • your lack of attention to students' learning styles, as evidenced by your heavy reliance on lecturing; and

  • your lack of attention to students' interests, as evidenced by your presentation of scientific concepts without connecting these to students' lives.

Source: Connecticut State Department of Education

This feedback is not designed as a stand-alone piece. The written evaluation is accompanied by a meeting between the beginning teacher and one or both of the experienced teachers who evaluated the portfolio. We hope this feedback process will serve as a springboard for future conversations with the teacher's mentor or members of the larger support system.

In Sync with Student Goals

We know that teachers find it easier to change their practice if they're doing so to be consistent with what their students are expected to know and be able to do. For their portfolios, teachers plan laboratory activities that are similar to those required of their students. All 10th grade students in the state are now required to take the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, which includes a student-centered laboratory activity on the science portion.
Observation of students' work in the laboratory as a basis for evaluating what they know and can do began in Connecticut more than a decade ago. Two assessments have focused on a student's ability to design and carry out scientific explorations—the Connecticut Assessment of Educational Progress in Science (Connecticut State Department of Education 1986) and the Common Core of Learning Assessment Program in Science (Lomask et al. 1993).

The Ripple Effect

Over the past five years, approximately one-quarter of the experienced teachers in Connecticut have been involved in our assessments, whether as cooperating teachers, mentors, or assessors. The majority of participating science teachers have reported that their involvement has had a positive effect on their own teaching. For this reason, we want experienced teachers to continue as active participants in the orientation of beginning teachers. As these teachers helped evaluate the portfolios, they had an opportunity to discuss the meaning of the teaching standards and to refine their understanding of the complexities of teaching science in today's classrooms, in which all students are expected to learn meaningful science.
Similarly, several of the college educators who helped develop the teaching standards and portfolios have incorporated elements of both into their preservice methods courses. It also appears likely that the new standards for certifying teachers will be incorporated into future practices for accrediting institutions of higher education.

Pros and Cons

After two years of experience with portfolio-based assessments of science teachers, we recognize both the importance and difficulty of this work. Articulation of teaching standards helps to clarify what constitutes effective teaching for both beginning and experienced teachers. Successful implementation and documentation of this teaching, however, requires careful support and research. The use of portfolios raises questions about the time needed, the inequities of teachers' access to resources, and support system in schools.
In evaluating the portfolios, other challenges surface, such as the effect of professional judgment on the reliability of scoring and the need for informative, yet efficient feedback mechanisms. But we are also reminded of the many ways in which the portfolio process itself can benefit teachers. In general, we have found that portfolios are a valuable assessment tool.
What is evident, too, is that portfolio-based assessment activities stimulate both statewide and local conversations about the central issues of teaching and learning. We hope that over time, we will be able to address satisfactorily many of the unresolved issues and challenges that portfolio-based assessment poses.

Collins, A. (1993). “Performance-Based Assessment of Biology Teachers: Promises and Pitfalls.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 30: 1103–1120.

Connecticut State Department of Education. (1986). Connecticut Assessment of Educational Progress in Science. Summary and Interpretations. Hartford: CSDE.

Lomask, M. (1994). Science Educator Support and Assessment Program. Connecticut State Department of Education internal publication.

Lomask, M., J. B. Baron, and J. Greig. (1993). “Alternative Student Assessment in Science.” In Assessment As an Opportunity to Learn, Final Report to the National Science Foundation for Grant SPA-8954692, edited by J. B. Baron. Hartford: Connecticut State Department of Education.

National Research Council. (1994). Draft National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Pecheone, R. L., J. B. Baron, P. D. Forgione, and S. Abeles. (1988). “A Comprehensive Approach to Teacher Assessment: Examples from Math and Science.” In This Year in School Science 1988: Science Teaching: Making the System Work, edited by A. B. Champagne. Washington D.C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Project 2061. (1989). Science for All Americans. Washington, D. C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). “Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching.” Educational Researcher 15: 4–14.

Michal S. Lomask has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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