Combining Learning and Assessment to Improve Science Education

Linn, M. C., & Chiu, J. (2011). Combining learning and assessment to improve science education. Research and Practice in Assessment, 5(Winter 2011), 4-13.

High-stakes tests take time away from valuable learning activities, narrow the focus of instruction, and imply that science involves memorizing details rather than understanding the natural world. Current tests lead precollege instructors to postpone science inquiry activities until after the last standardized test is completed—often during the last week of school. Students spend countless hours practicing and taking multiple-choice tests that have little educational value. Even college courses now devote class time to multiple choice clicker questions and often rely on similar items for course grades. Instead we need learning tests that help students understand science while at the same time measure progress.

For example, an item on the California eighth grade science assessment asks: Which of the following best describes an atom?

a) protons and electrons grouped together in a random pattern

b) protons and electrons grouped together in an alternating pattern

c) a core of protons and neutrons surrounded by electrons

d) a core of electrons and neutrons surrounded by protons

These detail-oriented questions motivate teachers to stick to the textbook where students can access this information. Assignments ask students to memorize rather than encouraging them to understand the role of atoms and molecules in scientific processes such as recycling. Learning tests could ask students to design experiments to test their ideas about chemical reactions, to create concept maps to distinguish between energy transfer and energy transformation, or to construct an argument explaining how the chemicals in detergents can help clean up oil spills.