Assessment ideas

As part of the district’s induction program, I coordinate a monthly seminar for new science teachers. The seminar features veteran teachers who share their experiences with a given topic or strategy, followed by a discussion. The topic of assessment is coming up. Do you have any insights or resources to share?
—Todd, Wichita, Kansas
“Are you teaching today or are the students doing a lab or just taking a test?” I used to dread this question from a former principal when he wanted to observe a class. He was implying the only classroom activities worth observing were lectures or large group activities. But I fooled him! One time I asked him to observe during a performance assessment. To his credit, he came to appreciate that  evaluating student learning is an important part of a teacher’s performance.
How do we know what the students are learning? We can wait until the yearly state exams (assuming they cover science), give our own final or end-of-course exam, or use unit tests or final projects. These summative assessments are fine, but they don’t tell us which students are having problems or developing misconceptions during the course or unit. Formative assessments can provide “just-in-time” information on what students know or can do. These include traditional quizzes and assignments, but can also include informal “thumbs up” questions, journal entries, or bell-ringer activities. I would recommend the book Science Formative Assessment: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning from NSTA Press.

Many students see assessment as something that happens so teachers can assign a grade at the end of a marking period. Perhaps we haven’t done a very good job of identifying the purposes of assessment? In his research on effective instruction, Robert Marzano found setting goals and providing feedback were among several effective strategies in improving student learning. The type of feedback we provide on assessment tasks is also important. If all students see are red checkmarks, circles around misspelled words, and a “grade” at the top of the page, it’s no wonder they crumple the paper or stuff it into a notebook without paying much attention. It’s important to provide feedback that is more informative than a smiley face or simply saying “good job” or “try harder.”  Instead, focus specifically on what the student did well or how the student could improve. Examples include “You supported your conclusion with evidence from the lab,” “Using a diagram to compare and contrast plant and animal cells was a great idea,” or  “Data in a table easier are to understand if the numbers line up. Please revise this table.” If you would like more information on what informative feedback looks like, see Feedback That Fits from the December 2007/January 2008 edition of Educational Leadership This issue has several other assessment  articles available online that could be discussion starters.
Rubrics are another way to provide useful feedback to students. Many of the articles in NSTA’s Science & Children, Science Scope, and The Science Teacher include rubrics for the activities described within. Visit SciLinks and search for “assessment” to find a list of useful websites. Many of these relate to reading and writing in science, but there are also some great rubrics resources. The Rubrics and Rubric Maker website has many suggestions for rubrics that can be adapted for science and other subjects and for a variety of assessment types.
PALS (Performance Assessment Links in Science) is another site science teachers should check out. There are dozens of performance assessment tasks, organized by standard, grade level, and topic. Each one references one or more of the National Science Education Standards. Each assessment includes a detailed description, a student handout with places to record data and observations, a scoring rubric, and the results of any formal validation. The best part is there are examples of actual student work at each of the rubric levels. Wouldn’t it be interesting for a department or grade level to choose several of these to use throughout the year to assess (and discuss) student performance? And they’re ready for us to use!
Photograph: http://www.flickr.com/photos/46632302@N06/4279477491/

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