The Elementary Students' Science Beliefs Test: A Tool to Access Students' Science Understandings-And Inform Your Teaching

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The National Science Education Standards content standards for grades K-4 address a variety of important science concepts, but what do students really understand about the ideas presented in them? Although our professions are somewhat different--a university science educator who researches students' science beliefs and a fifth-grade classroom teacher--we were both were very interested in elementary students' science beliefs. We thought it would be useful to find out more about how elementary students interpreted some of the ideas found within the National Science Education Standards so that teachers could use this information to guide their instruction. So, using the Standards as a starting point (many of the test items we wrote are very close to the narrative found within the Standards), we developed an online test--The Elementary Students' Science Beliefs Test--covering several essential K-4 understandings for elementary students in life, physical, and Earth sciences (Figure 1, p. 28).

The test was similar to one we developed in 2005 as part of our research on identifying common misconceptions (Stein and Barman 2005), however, in developing this set of items, we identified statements found within K-4 content standards (in the National Science Education Standards) and developed a set of true or false statements that targeted a range of science concepts across physical, life, and Earth sciences. The purpose of asking these questions is to find out more about students' ideas, underlying beliefs, and potential misconceptions in order to help them better understand ideas that are detailed in the Standards--and in the curriculum. By finding out what your students believe, we hope that teachers can think about how classroom experiences might be altered or adjusted to help students deepen their levels of understanding.

What follows is a description of our experience and our reflections after administering the test to a group of third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students in a suburban Michigan school.

The Test

The test is a set of 24 declarative statements, eight statements each in the topics of life, physical, and Earth sciences. Students were instructed to read each statement, respond whether they thought the statement was true or false, and write an explanation for each statement on why the statement was true or false. If they guessed, students were to indicate that they had guessed so that we would know. This helped us identify any instances when large numbers of students were so confounded that they may not have even understood what the item was stating. By having students indicate when they were guessing, it also helped them to think about whether they really had reasons or underlying beliefs that supported their answers or not.

The instrument was posted online and administered to 160 elementary students in grades 3, 4, and 5. We chose this grade-level group because the Standards we used as our basis for developing the test items are intended for students in grades K-4, so we decided to administer the test to students who should be well on their way to understanding the content identified within the Standards. It is important to note that students at this school typically do very well on standardized tests and the school has a well-developed science curriculum.

Most of the students completed the test on the computer, though a few students (per their teachers' request) completed a hard copy of the test and for these students the researchers entered their information. When a student finished the test, the computer tabulated their results, and a screen popped up with their answers, the correct answers, and an explanation for each item.

The responses were electronically tabulated to show us the percentages of correct and incorrect responses. Students' written explanations were also recorded and analyzed. Through reading and analyzing all of the responses for each item together, we were able to see some common patterns regarding students' beliefs. …