Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 14, Issue 2, Article 7 (Dec., 2013)

Assessing New Zealand high school science: Considerations for teachers’ assessment literacy

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Focus area model

The second section of this paper focusses on the approaches taken by teachers that are more likely to result in high quality assessment. The example of assessing Level 1 NCEA science achievement standards has been chosen to illustrate these approaches, as NCEA Level 1 science is compulsory for most for 15-year-old students. However, the issues raised are applicable to the assessment of other levels of science.  As has been discussed, New Zealand secondary science teachers have the responsibility for both teaching and assessing the majority of the science curriculum science at NCEA Level 1. There are advantages in teachers directly assessing students’ work.  Teachers who do this are able to assess processes of learning as well as outcomes; they can allow students to play some part in the assessment of their learning; and they can use evidence collected and used formatively for summative purposes (Harlen, 2010). However this is also a high stakes exercise and teachers can find themselves narrowing their students’ experiences to align with assessment tasks, especially if they feel they are being judged by their students’ performances (Hume, 2006; Moeed & Hall, 2011).

A focus area model for quality assessment in science was developed through the synthesis of assessment literature with consideration of the list of competencies developed by Brookhart (2011), together with views of assessment from the perspective of socio-cultural theory (Edwards, 2013).  The quality assessment focus area model used here, helps teachers focus on broad key aspects of quality assessment whilst teaching science. Using this model keeps the focus on teaching and learning, and prioritises teachers’ assessment literacy, rather than focussing on “teaching to tests”. The five focus areas of: teaching, students, evidence of learning, future decision making, and impact, are linked to the internal NCEA science standards, to illustrate how concurrent consideration of these focus areas could improve the quality of a teacher’s teaching and assessment practice.

 Focus on teaching

The importance of a focus on teaching is based on the premise that good planning is a pre-requisite for good teaching and good assessment. The use and communication of clear learning intentions and achievement criteria for each topic, and direct links between the focus of the learning and what is assessed are critical (Brookhart, 2011; Kennedy, 2008). For quality assessment in NCEA, New Zealand science teachers must clearly communicate the purposes of various assessment activities, and in particular show students how these link to learning objectives, and to the achievement standards. Clarity will allow for improved student achievement and engagement (Absolum, 2006).

A number of the internal achievement standards for NCEA centre on investigating what the implications of science concepts are for everyday life or society (AS90941, AS90942, AS90943, AS90945, AS90946). This means that as part of their focus on teaching, teachers need to consider how students best learn about topics such as electricity, wave behaviour, metals, etc, and they need to plan their teaching in order to help students make clear links between the scientific concepts they learn in the classroom, and what they experience in everyday life. Implicit in this planning is the need for methods of investigation and the nature of scientific investigation (as part of NOS) to be taught and experienced. In three of the achievement standards (AS90952, AS90953, AS90954) students have to be able to demonstrate understandings of particular phenomena, so teachers need to communicate that this is an aim of the teaching programme, and need to explicitly teach the ways that students could demonstrate their understanding.

One way of becoming more explicit in this focus area of teaching, is by the use of Content Representations (CoRes) and Pedagogical and Professional-experience Repertoires (PaP-eRs), which have been shown to be help teachers specifically identify and depict components of their pedagogical content knowledge (Hume, 2010; Hume & Berry, 2010; Loughran, Berry, & Mulhall, 2006). CoRes represent the special knowledge held by expert teachers around a specific science topic and include “ the key content ideas, known alternative conceptions, insightful ways of testing for understanding, known areas of confusion, and ways of framing ideas to support student learning” (Loughran, Mulhall, & Berry, 2008, p. 1305), whereas PaP-ers are the narrative accounts of this knowledge in action.  In the initial planning stages these strategies may be particularly helpful when there is an added focus on the skills requirement for the assessment of the topic under consideration. The effectiveness of “plotting a course between the domain of learning and the assessments selected to embody it” (Brookhart, 2011, p. 6) depends on the way students learn as well as teachers’ deep understanding of NOS within the content area. With a focus on teaching, careful and thorough planning, and the communication of clear learning intentions, the teacher is better able to help students learn science as the curriculum intended, rather than just teaching to a test. This will lead to broader and deeper learning, which will in turn lead to the students being more able to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in the assessment tasks they are presented with.

 Focus on students

Focussing directly on students, and their particular aptitudes, prior learning, interests, and needs, means that teachers are able to build a learning relationship with their students. New Zealand science teachers do have considerable freedom in the design of assessment activities for the gathering of evidence of learning from their students. This means that they can incorporate their own students’ interests and strengths into their teaching, and plan assessments that are responsive to their students’ beliefs, values and experiences. At the same time they can be gathering reliable evidence that can be assessed against the relevant achievement standards. For example students living at a beach, who enjoy surfing, may well be given tasks that focus on ocean waves when teachers are assessing against the standard: 90942 Investigate implications of wave behaviour for everyday life. This context  is more likely to engage the students. Or students living near the Tiwai smelter (an Aluminium smelter in New Zealand) may be able to use the knowledge of family members working in the industry, and a site visit as part of an investigation of the uses of aluminium for 90946 Investigate the implications of the properties of metals for their use in society. This personalisation and focus on individual classes or even students, as opposed to using run-of-the-mill tasks aimed at the “average New Zealand student”, improves the quality of the assessment, as students are more likely to be fully engaged in the assessment activity.

By focussing on their students, science teachers can share power in the classroom through the co-construction of assessment tasks (within the constraints of the achievement standards), thus giving them a part to play in the assessment process. This means assessment tasks that take account of students’ strengths, interests, culture and language can be developed within the NCEA system. The moderation system that operates for NCEA for quality control means the accuracy of assessment judgements will not be compromised by doing this. The evidence of learning is compared to the criteria in the achievement standards when judgements about competency are made. It is the student-generated evidence that is important, rather than the means by which it was generated, as will be discussed in the next section.

 Focus on evidence of learning

Part of a teacher’s assessment literacy is their ability to work out the mechanism to best assess the learning of their particular students. For this to be done to best effect there are very specific principles of assessment that need to be applied. NCEA summative assessment is high stakes assessment and as such the internal assessment components need to be carried out in ways that maximise reliability and validity. During the teaching of any science topic a range of assessment is used for a range of purposes. For example a teacher preparing to teach a unit on chemical change, who will eventually assess students against standard AS90947 Investigate selected chemical reactions may use a pre-test for diagnostic purposes so that she can plan the unit based on prior knowledge of the students. She may then use a range of practical, on-line and paper-based tasks during the course of teaching/exploring the unit, from which further information will be gathered to help her refine her planning to provide feedback to students about their learning and to better meet the needs of the students. This formative assessment is central to her teaching but will include gathering evidence of student learning and progress, some of which may be used for summative purposes. In some cases, if appropriate authentic evidence is gathered and documented, the teacher can use it for assessment against the achievement standard. She will use summative assessment tasks at the end of the unit on chemical reactions in order to give students final chances to show evidence of their knowledge and skills. The final outcomes of the judgements she makes will be reported to students and NZQA, as summative outcomes, but may also be used in a department review to further inform the effectiveness of the teaching for next year (thus using summative assessment formatively). Throughout the whole process of preparing for and teaching the unit, the better the teacher’s understanding and use of assessment, the better the outcomes for her students (Harlen & Gardner, 2010).

The New Zealand NCEA assessment system allows for teachers within individual schools to design assessment activities, so teachers can quite freely decide on item types (eg short answer tests, posters, seminars, websites, essays, reports, on-line quizzes etc) which allow their students to communicate their learning. As part of a focus on evidence the selection of item types needs to be made following thoughtful consideration of the ways in which items will allow students to best provide evidence of their learning. This may mean for some groups in a class an oral report is made, rather than a written report, because of the strengths of the students being assessed. Group assessments can be carefully crafted so that individual students’ learning can be assessed through group processes, particularly if group work is the way students operate best. As long as authenticity of students’ individual work is assured, this flexibility can allow students to demonstrate their learning more naturally.

When assessing a standard like 90949 Investigate life processes and environmental factors that affect them, teachers must consider whether their students are more likely to show their learning by completing a practical investigation generating primary sources of data, or by using secondary sources, and which contexts might be most engaging for the students. As well as this they need to consider how best to scaffold the recording and communication of their investigation (is a report best or would the production of a short documentary or webpage better suit the purpose?) The item types need careful consideration to ensure students are best able to provide evidence of their learning. For example, is a series of short answer questions more helpful than an open assignment where students have to prepare an essay? The expertise of the teacher is very important here, as assessment task design now needs to include elements of NOS. To allow for excellence grades, teachers need to know how best to prepare tasks that allow for comprehensive investigations, so there is a need for the types of questions which require a higher cognitive demand to be included in the task design.

 Focus on future decision making

The summative results that students generate through being assessed against NCEA achievement standards could well have an impact on decisions they themselves, or others around them, make about their future. This means there is an onus on teachers to make their summative judgements fairly and accurately, and to communicate these to students and other stakeholders. For example, in the final two years of senior high school science, students will be placed in specialist science classes (eg biology, chemistry, physics), and entry to these classes is often based on students’ results in Level 1 NCEA science. This example highlights the importance of teachers choosing appropriate achievement standards to assess students for Level 1 NCEA.

Care needs to be taken to ensure that decision making about the future is done with due diligence, and with students’ best interests at heart. For example, decisions about which science achievement standards to use in a particular year by a may be influenced by the past results and the interests of students but also by the teachers’ knowledge of what makes a well-balanced curriculum. The balance of internal to externally assessed standards may also make a difference to student outcomes and hence to decisions that are made for those students. Another consideration is that students need to be able to interpret their own NCEA results and use their assessment information to make sound judgements. This is part of the students’ assessment capability.

 Focus on impact

Quality assessment in science involves consideration of the impact that the assessment will have both on individuals and on school programmes. Teachers need to think carefully about the views students have about themselves as scientists/investigators, so they can set up activities that encourage and interest their students. In this way students will not feel that science is of no interest or use to them. In the internal achievement standards AS90450-AS90455 this will mean the careful teaching of investigation skills and techniques, data gathering and synthesis of ideas so that students are fully engaged equipped to investigate phenomena as required, as well as understanding the NOS. Given the breadth of the achievement standards, some negotiation of focus topics may help students engage in their assessment, and may result in a positive impact on their grades. The impact of successful investigations may well be that the students carry on studying the sciences in senior secondary school and at tertiary level. 

Because New Zealand is a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country, teachers need sensitivity and awareness to ensure that the beliefs of students are honoured and acknowledged, so as to lessen any negative impact that might occur when introducing scientific concepts.


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