Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 5, Issue 3, Article
1 (Dec., 2004)
Mehmet KÜÇÜK & Salih ÇEPNİ
Measurement and assessment for science education in the Turkish educational context: Problems and reflections
In the last few decades, some special value has been attached to student and school assessment approaches in educational literature (Amrein & Berliner, 2002; Doran, Tamir & Chan, 1995; Neill, 1997; Ulmer, 2001). National Research Council of the USA and some others have made an important contribution to the improvement and development of educational assessment area. In this article we first examined these new trends and focused on some new assessment methods in science education and then looked at the Turkish educational context based on the explained criteria for science assessments. Then we discussed some thoughts about the future of science assessment.
The USA National Research Council created its own National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996). This document has been accepted to provide the best research-based thinking on science assessment. It includes the standards that have been developed for students to show how much science they know and how they know it as well as to start to have an understanding of various uses for science assessment. It has recommended the following shifts in assessment process (NRC, 1996):
- From what is easily measured to what is highly valued,
- From assessing knowledge to assess understanding and reasoning,
- From finding out what students do not know to finding out what they know,
- From the end of assessment term by teachers to ongoing assessment by students.
Looking at these shifts, it is obvious that learners are to be more active in learning and teaching contexts, teachers are to focus on making the hint points appear and to raise each studentís own potential to the highest level. Just in this way, we can use the full potential of all learners. In addition, this document provided a shift toward performance based assessment science assessments in schools (NRC, 1996). This let evidence of higher learning in the form of demonstrated reasoning and problem solving skills which has been also supported in an intense value in the science education literature. These trends contributed to implementing some alternative and more authentic science assessments, such as those in which students can demonstrate what they know and can do. This will be explained in the context of a new concept of constructivist assessment through subsequent sessions.
Besides NRC, we also want to discuss a document called "Principles and Indicators for Student Assessment Systems" developed by National Forum on Assessment. In an article written by Neill (1997), he drew on principles to outline what a new assessment system would look like and to suggest some actions that can be taken into consideration to further assessment reform. The most important and attractive part of this document is that it requires a radical reconstruction of assessment practices in schools and suggests that student learning be made central to assessment reform. The seven principles on which all the participants of the forum agreed are given below:
- The primary purpose of assessment is to improve student learning;
- Assessment for other purposes supports student learning;
- Assessment systems are fair to all students;
- Professional collaboration and development support assessment;
- The broad community participates in assessment development;
- Communication about assessment is regular and clear;
- Assessment systems are regularly reviewed and improved.
Here, it is stressed that the aim of assessment is to improve and develop student learning not just to find out how good students are at some kinds of examinations, that assessment system should be convenient for all students and should contribute to developing and improving all the students' potentials toward a highest level, and that if the aim of schooling is to develop students who are harmonious and profitable to the people, then all communities should participate in assessment process. This also implies that in assessing students, it is necessary to look at this phenomena from multiple view points such as students, teachers, school management, communities and governments.
1.1. Need for Measurement and Assessment
Teaching and learning include a lot of instructional decisions to enhance and increase student learning, and quality of instruction is strongly connected to the structure of information on which these instructional decisions are made (Linn & Gronlund, 1995). Hence, the most important point is the determination of the way in which good, valid and reliable information about student learning can be provided. Traditionally, assessment process is focused on evaluating student accomplishment, however, contemporarily, it should be focused on increasing student learning and, the heart of assessment is a continuing flow in which the teacher in collaboration with students, uses information to guide the next steps in learning (Neill, 1997).
Scientific knowledge on student learning at science courses can be taken with multiple-measurement tools; for example, different kinds of testing methods are used to determine students' achievement levels and performance levels (Neill, 1997; Walker, 1999). Thus, science teachers have to know all these methods and be good evaluators of learners' progress. In addition, assessment has an important effect on learners' growth, achievement and self-esteem (Howe & Jones, 1998). In case of science teachers' using new and modern measurement and assessment methods throughout their teaching practices, it is believed that they can plan sequential learning activities for their students (Doran, Tamir & Chan, 1995). In this context, assessment methods such as project work, group work, higher levels of inquiries and using technological materials will increase the motivation of students to apply science knowledge into their own cognitive worlds (Doran, Tamir & Chan, 1995). This implies that a teacher should understand the particular student or group; that is to say, the teacher should assess students' actual strengths and learning needs, which require classroom-based performance assessment (Neill, 1997).
It is known that assessment takes place in three different forms throughout classroom teaching period: the beginning is assigned to finding out what students know and don't know; the instruction period is intended to help teachers make decision about what to do next, and the end of instruction is expected to provide teachers and students with an idea on what progress students have made and what they are capable of doing. Carin and Sund (1980: 274) explained this process as follows: science teachers determine what to teach - science content - at the beginning of a science course; then focus on how to teach- physical environment and intellectual levels of students, teaching methods, science materials; evaluate how much students have learned at the end of the course. If we look at these three basic phases in planning science courses, it seems that all of them, especially the last one, would require much more importance. If science teachers think a lot on the evaluation phase, they can be good at their teaching practices and profession.
Measurement and assessment concepts have different meanings; nevertheless, a group of teachers understand them as the same words. Here, two descriptions are given both for measurement and assessment concepts. Assessment is a term that includes a lot of procedures used to gain information related to student learning and formations of some value judgments about learning progress (Linn & Gronlund, 1995). In spite of the fact that measurement is limited to quantitative descriptions of students' behaviors, assessment can include both qualitative and quantitative characteristics of students' learning outcomes. If so, one tends to ask the question of what the aim of assessment is. Howe and Jones (1998) answered this question as follows: teacher-assessment is not intended to situate learners into some categories or to teach pupils to complete for some grades, but it aims to encourage and motivate students to achieve the cognitive, affective, psychomotor and social goals of a course. In the traditional approach, assessment is used to select students according to their cognitive abilities and to help them graduate from low-level schools to the higher ones. In this case, there appears an important problem, which is that too much emphasis is placed on grades and too little on helping students learn. These points, then, lead to a reduction in intrinsic motivation (Baker & Piburn, 1997).
1.2. Overview to the Measurement and Assessment Area in the World
At present, research on teaching and learning supports the movement toward new assessment approaches (NRC, 1996). Related literature includes a series of conceptual models that introduce the means and importance of student assessment from different perspectives (Linn & Gronlund, 1995). These are called placement, formative, diagnostic and summative assessments. Here we want to stress especially on formative assessment approach because it is more important than the others in learning contexts. For example, it can provide teachers with a considerable amount of information in order to improve each student's progress and develop teaching programs. Constructivist assessment, which entered the educational area and is supported by many educators, also includes formative assessment through classroom teaching process (Baker & Piburn, 1997). Educational assessment cannot be separated from teaching-learning progress; hence, it requires being an integral part of the teaching-learning process and provides some rich opportunities for student development and improvement.
Using effective measurement and assessment techniques ensures meaningful science learning for students and also affects the ways in which teachers teach and students learn. Mueller and his colleagues (2001) identifies that systematical assessment of student learning outcomes in science courses is supposed to change towards a realistic framework and classroom of the future is believed to evaluate realistic situations that require application of science concepts, principles and theories. In this way, students will not select the true answers from a set of multiple-choice questions, the best match from a set of concerning terms or decide whether a statement is true or false. Instead of this, learners will observe and explore the situation, discuss the observation notes with other students, make important judgments on a situation provided for them and contribute to construction of new knowledge. However, traditional assessment approaches with conventional tests are still dominant on the current educational area in the world (Baker & Piburn, 1997) and much of the information situated in conventional tests is not connected to the real lives or interests of students (Howe & Jones, 1998). Traditional assessment is just focused on assessing the attainments of cognitive objectives (Collette & Chiappetta, 1989) and mostly includes paper and pencil tests consisting of multiple choices, true false and completion items based on problems and a few easy or free response questions. These methods are limited in that they do not provide information about the attainment of many of the inseparable objectives of science teaching (Howe & Jones, 1998).
Another issue is whether teachers are well informed about knowledge on assessment methods and how this can be achieved. We suppose that teachers are not well informed about how to make effective formative evaluation and they are also faced with problems in making judgments on student learning. However, if teachers were allowed to gain sound formative skills and then develop appropriate assessment policies, the benefit for future years would be substantial (Black, 1986). Most of the teachers do not use assessment in right forms. Ulmer (2001) explains that just in case of decreasing the time and work demand on teachers, they can be much more efficient in formative assessment of critical thinking in problem-based learning. Nevertheless, it is still problematic whether teachers can develop themselves in formative assessments or not.
Teaching students in classrooms ensures teachers' professional development and leads them to learn, construct and find out new knowledge on how the best students can be assessed. This implies that not only should science teachers implement the current evaluation techniques effectively but also they should develop new evaluation techniques to improve and enhance science teaching in contextual areas. Problem-based instruction requires learners to rely on their own thinking to start to struggle with the faced problems. In order to enhance teachers' teaching for critical thinking, described also as reflective thinking (Farrell, 1999; Zeichner & Liston, 1996), it is necessary to improve the quality of student thinking. This is that we should include learners into assessment process and thus, students can be an integral part of it. In order to include them into the assessment process in appropriate ways, we can encourage them to become independent learners who can take responsibility for their own learning. In this context, we also need to make learners aware of the importance of critical thinking before teaching practices. The help of formative assessment activities could achieve this (Ulmer, 2001).
Individuals who are related to learners want to know how well their children do in schools (Amrein & Berliner, 2002). Science achievement outcomes of students should be regularly disseminated to parents, community and students in meaningful ways (ESRD, 2001). In this context, the systematical use of a wide range of assessment procedures provides an objective and comprehensive basis to report each student's learning progress (Linn & Gronlund, 1995). However, a lot of problems can be encountered in reporting how much learners have achieved. For example, in student choices and decision making for the curriculum, there are no useful tests in order to measure progress for all learners in a comprehensive classroom. Here, the term 'comprehensive classroom' means the classroom in which a range of students with different intellectual competencies is educated.
The other issue is the wide-scale and standard assessments. In the late 1990, the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) attempted to make comparisons between American students' math and science abilities and those of the students in other countries. Publishing the American students' unexpectedly low science test scores, educational professionals have argued over the validity of such wide-scale assessments (Frontczak, Kowalski & Brown, 2002). If so, what kinds of shifts are required in assessment approaches?
Educational assessment has two main purposes. The first is to help teachers design the instruction while the second is to contribute to learners in their progress. Baker and Piburn (1997) used the terms of traditional assessment and constructivist assessment. In traditional assessment, students' cognitive knowledge is determined by using a teacher-made or standard test such as multiple choices, true/false; fill in the blank and short-answer questions. In constructivist assessment, however, essays, practical examinations, papers, projects, questionnaires, inventories, checklist, portfolios, teacher observations, discussions and interviews are preferred for that purpose.
In contemporary approaches, it is stressed that using only limited means to determine pupil achievement is not enough. For this reason effective comprehensive assessment is advocated by some educators in assessing student learning in a good way (Mueller et al, 2001). They list those characteristics of effective comprehensive assessment as follows. It, he remarks:
- Is directly linked with course and daily outcomes and standards,
- Includes opportunities for reproduction of factual knowledge and the application and/or creative production of skills, knowledge, or concepts,
- Includes opportunities for self-assessment, goal setting, and personal/professional development through reflection,
- Includes a variety of tools which take into consideration the characteristics of the learners and the structure of the content,
- Includes performance-based tasks or projects that have a real-life context,
- Provides vehicles for specific feedback to the student about strengths and areas for improvement,
- Is congruent with methods of instruction.
It can be understood from these criteria that in effective comprehensive assessment, students are situated in the real life context and while they are struggling with the problems they encounter, they are observed. Besides this, it is explicit that students should be assessed individually rather than collaboratively.
1.3. Science Learning and Assessment
For the purpose of classroom instruction, assessment procedures which are used can be classified in terms of their functional roles: placement assessment in which a teacher determines prerequisite skills, course goals, and the best form of learning and formative assessment in which he/she determines the learning progress, provides feedback to reinforce learning and corrects learning errors. It is also important for a teacher to critically examine and systemically look at the phenomena that appear in the classroom; for example, a teacher's recording observations is believed to serve to alert him to some aspects of a student's learning or attitude that requires immediate attention. There is also diagnostic assessment in which he/she determines the causes - i.e. intellectual, physical, emotional and environmental - of persistent learning difficulties (Linn & Gronlund, 1995). Those examining a student's performance areas that need special attention seldom emerge. Accordingly, a teacher should decide to investigate the causes of this behavior more closely. In fact, especially while adjusting the learning to individual differences of all the learners in the science program, teachers make use of diagnostic data. Another category is summative assessment in which a teacher determines end of course achievement for assigning grades or certifying mastery of objectives (Linn & Gronlund, 1995). It is clear that the recorded phenomena concentrate on describing incidents of student performance over a period of time. However, the sequence of phenomena can serve as a record of the student's own development towards long-term goals such as lifelong learning, self-concept, cooperative learning, skill development, study skills, knowledge development, and interest (ESRD, 2001).
Now, it is time to discuss about how a science teacher can make quality assessment. We think, before all, a science teacher should determine the match between the most appropriate organizational methods and the type of student information to be gathered. Currently, based on the constructivist learning approach, individual assessment and portfolios seem to be the most useful methods to observe student achievement in science education (ESRD, 2001). Letís look at the most important and differing features of these methods.
Individual assessment is mostly concerned with individual student progress and assessment activities constructed by the teacher are followed and completed individually by the students (ESRD, 2001). For example, teachers may wish to have students work individually on written assignments, presentations or performance assessment tasks in order to assess their individual progress at science lessons. Students' learning how to reflect themselves and how to evaluate their own works are quite important. Similarly, an important goal of school is for students to be able to learn without relying on teachers (Neill, 1997). In individual assessment, each student at each grade level is assessed according to his or her standing in attaining the objectives set out in curriculum documents and also self-referenced standards provide specific feedback to the individual on strengths and weaknesses. In addition, they are useful for motivating students and allow for a more relevant method of reporting progress for students with special needs and it can motivate students to accept a greater degree of responsibility for their learning progress (ESRD, 2001).
Portfolio is a collection of student-produced materials provided over an extended period of time that allows a teacher to evaluate student growth and overall learning progress during that period of time. It is an organizational structure that teachers may use to accumulate and organize student assessment information. Copies of assignments, contracts, assessments of presentations, assessments of the performance of skills and processes, quizzes, and tests are all examples of items, which may be included in portfolios (ESRD, 2001). In addition, a portfolio may also include samples of students' daily works. From a different viewpoint, portfolios are becoming popular among constructivists as one of the most appropriate forms of assessment. It also fosters the reflection and development of meta-cognitive strategies as students themselves evaluate and monitor their own progress (Champagne & Newell, 1992). The literature, which pertains to portfolios and portfolio assessment, highlights the learner's responsibility for selecting the work to be included in the portfolio and for the learning itself. Learners are not often given the opportunity to assess and judge their own learning. The portfolio, however, requires that learners take an active role in the evaluation of their own work and this helps to shift the emphasis from teaching to learning. The instruction and organization of the curriculum center around the portfolio and promote interactions between teacher and student around the collection of work (Klenowski, 1996). The process of putting together a portfolio results in a number of positive outcomes in addition to learning and development of positive attitudes towards science and scientific dispositions (Baker & Piburn, 1997)
Up to this point in the present article, we have explained in sum the trends and developments in the educational science assessment area in the world. In this context, we have discussed the issues of why science assessment is important, how science learning can be assessed in the best way. We have also considered some important features of two contemporary science assessment methods and so on. Next, we have explained how science learning is assessed in Turkish educational context. In addition, some significant problems faced during the science assessments of Turkish students have been considered.
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