Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Relationship of Assessment to Knowledge Development in Science Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Relationship of Assessment to Knowledge Development in Science Education

Article excerpt

Mr. Pallrand describes a set of assessment activities for high school science students - activities based on the assumption that understanding is demonstrated by an individual's ability to use knowledge in situations that represent extensions of those in which learning took place.

Some time ago I attended a workshop on "nontraditional" assessments that was presented at a conference for professional educators. After the session I joined other members of the audience in an elevator that returned us to the main level of the convention hall. I could not help but overhear the conversation of two teachers who apparently took exception to some of the ideas presented in the workshop. At one point, one of the teachers remarked, "How do they expect students to answer questions that teachers have not already given them the answers to?"

These teachers are not alone in regarding students as the equivalent of mental "receptacles" into which information is deposited to be retrieved on demand. This position assumes that students absorb and process new material in a form that is essentially identical to that in which it was originally presented. Perhaps such a view of learning and knowledge was sufficient in the past, when what was known changed very slowly. But, particularly in the sciences, this is no longer the case.

There is no need to rehash here the history of science, other than to point out that science has never been and never will be a static body of knowledge that can be bequeathed in toto to the next generation. Knowledge of all kinds - not just scientific knowledge - is a tool whose meaning evolves through its use.(1) Its value is derived from our ability to do something with it, and its development is an active process. New knowledge is built on what is already known.(2) Indeed, connecting new knowledge with existing knowledge is one of the distinguishing features of scientific theory. Such connections say far more about what one understands than the recitation of terminology or the display of what Whitehead called "inert" knowledge.(3) If what is known is interconnected, it enables one to use that knowledge in numerous capacities, to extrapolate and generalize.

As our understanding of science has grown over the years, one area that has received considerable attention is the role of explanation. Explanation is basic to science. Explanations provide abstractions that are used to account for what appears to be taking place in the world. And the importance of explanation is that it connects and relates events and enables one to make predictions that can be tested and revised.

Considering this background about the nature of science and the importance of explanation, how might the spirit and substance of science be best represented in schools? One approach requires a different curricular emphasis, one that stresses the rapidly changing nature of scientific knowledge. And such fundamental changes in curricular focus must be supported by assessment practices that are consistent with and reinforce the new curricular goals.

Assessment Through Explanation

Explanation is also central in science education. Students demonstrate their understanding by explaining phenomena, and a student's explanations provide the teacher with information about how the student's knowledge is organized. Explanations provide a window into the student's thinking.

Student explanations span a broad spectrum. For example, a group of students watched a demonstration in which a teacher placed a medicine dropper that was partially filled with water inside a large plastic cola bottle that was approximately two-thirds filled with water. The amount of water in the dropper had been adjusted so that the dropper just barely floated. When pressure was applied to the closed container (i.e., the capped bottle was squeezed), the dropper sank to the bottom. Using plastic bottles and medicine droppers, the students proceeded to investigate the problem in small groups. …

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