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September 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 1

Trends: Science / Measuring a Sense for Science

    Instructional Strategies
      Learning is the dictionary, but sense the grammar of science.—Lawrence Sterne
      When we were children, our parents may have baited our fishing hooks or threaded our sewing needles and then asked us to demonstrate proficiency. As teenagers we may have been challenged to explain “How do you know?” when locked in debate about an issue. We needed more of a response than “because I do.” We needed proof. Being able to prove we know, to verify our learning, is the essence of education. This theme is central to a new view of testing in science.
      The new wave of assessment in science is referred to as alternative, authentic, accurate, aligned, and active. It seeks to have students “pipe the sink” in the same way apprentice plumbers demonstrate their craft. It seeks to measure students' knowledge of the “grammar of science” (as Sterne described it above) as well as the traditional knowledge of content.
      What we're teaching is problem-solving skill as well as the probing tactic for which 3-year-olds are known. “Why? Why? Why?” is the fundamental premise around which science revolves. Science educators spend much of their time not so much telling students why, but providing the means for figuring out why. When we ascertain a student's degree of accomplishment in our discipline, should we not also ask them “why?” That focus uniquely defines science assessment as an active endeavor where the ability to discover is paramount, and the content students discover is secondary to process.
      Oral portfolios in science are one way to assess students' “sense of science.” Compilations of lab reports, essays, activities, and readings covered in a term, when coupled with an oral defense, take on the synthesis factor that science teachers strive for. Portfolio defense provides an opportunity for students to demonstrate grand-scope cognition in a way that multiple-choice exams cannot. What portfolio defense lacks in process skill assessment, it makes up for in scope integration—the assessment of interwoven themes.
      Lab tests have evolved into full-blown learning assessments. At the end of a course, students should have command of tools, techniques, and scientific processes. What better way to determine that than to provide an outfitted lab lacking only a question to be solved? A biology student may be challenged to investigate how thermal pollution affects Euglena. A physics challenge may involve how electrical conductance of various metals can be investigated.
      Poster-paper assessments are extensions of essays, field experiences, research papers, and projects. An interesting twist are the wall displays of the work, which convey all that is good about science assessment—that it's prideful and public venture—where the product of one's labor is to be widely shared.
      Science teachers conduct active, authentic assessment every day in a lab-based course. A multiple-choice exam runs contrary to this process, yet remains a prevalent local, state, and national style of assessment. The major impediment to authentic assessment may be the time factor in development and implementation. Yet, there's solace in the Lockhart Constant of Test Development. James Lockhart's theorem (TdTg = c) states that total time investment in test development (d) and grading (g) is constant (c). Either writing or grading an exam will consume time, and authentic assessment inflates the Tg. But ultimately these assessments are more aligned with what we're attempting to convey to kids: that science is a process.
      The trend toward authentic assessment in science is slow. But traditionally state-implemented standardized tests are gaining a clearer vision of the important measures of learning in science. Of 28 states collecting statewide measures of student performance achievement in science, 7 implement testing that involves open-ended questions or judge performance rather than relying solely on the traditional multiple-choice exam.
      High school versions of standardized practical test experiences present formidable obstacles as far as item selection and technicality are concerned. Yet, the effort to test process skills in science at all levels reflects more accurately Lawrence Sterne's prescription. Achievement of academic success in science is best measured by doing science.
      End Notes

      1 A sample exam question from the Missouri pilot version of the 4th grade level of Authentic Science Assessment describes a situation where two individuals are to wash a car with water that is too hot. After proposing hypotheses for cooling the bucket, students are supplied materials to re-enact the experiment and generate written results.

      2 The seven states are California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, and New York.

      Jeffrey D. Weld has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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