"Evaluating student progress in my hands-on science program can be tricky," says Carol Cotter, a combined 1st- and 2nd-grade teacher in Lebanon, New Hampshire. "But for me the grade is not really important. The real meat of it is to have an ongoing record to use during parent conferences to show what students are doing in terms of content, process, and study skills."
For effective assessment, Cotter first decides on one or two learning objectives, then chooses a techniques that matches her goal. She purposely limits herself to a few objectives, she says, because "if you try to assess 20 kids on too many, you'll just make yourself frustrated."
Both Cotter and Darnel Johnson, who teaches a combined 1st and 2nd-grade class in Manhattan Beach, California, choose from a variety of techniques to assess student gains over a short period of time. These "snapshot" techniques can be used at the start of a unit to assess a child's prior knowledge, during a unit to assess how a child issuing new information, or at the end of a unit for an overview of progress. Snapshot approaches include paper-and-pencil tests, personal interviews, and assessments of science journal entries.
Paper-and-pencil tests make useful assessment tools when content learning is the goal. For example, to assess student understanding of magnetic forces, Cotter gives students lab sheets with drawings of pairs of magnets will attract or repel. Paper-and-pencil tests better match hands-on learning goals if they include open-ended questions and opportunities for problem solving.
"Use personal interviews," Cotter advises, "to reach the quiet child who is reluctant to participate in a large group discussion." After a paper-and-pencil task related to a seeds unit, for example, she circulates among her students and asks each to name two ways that seeds travel. She writes student comments on their papers and these become part of each student's "portfolio," or assessment folder.
Portfolios include selected pieces of student work to be shared at parent conferences, or to pass on to next year's teacher. They are useful as an ongoing record of student work over a long time period. Johnson lets students help choose what goes into their portfolios. "I like doing this," she says, "because students become active participants in evaluating their own progress."
How does one go about evaluating science journal entries? Johnson stresses the importance of having students date their entries. This provides students with a model of how real scientists work--they can refer to their journals to see, for instance, how much time it took for their silkworm eggs to hatch.
Journal dates also provide Johnson with comparison points for skill development over longer periods of time. She compares initial journal entries to later ones to see if a child is making more detailed observations, making predictions and inferences, and incorporating new science vocabulary. For example, she documents the first time a student uses the word "pupa" during a butterfly unit. She notes that the written use of the word follows a discussion at story time. In that same unit, she asks students to draw the stages from caterpillar to butterfly in their journals. To evaluate the entries later on, she asks herself: Are all the stages represented? Do the drawings indicate developed observation skills? Are the drawings labeled and sequenced correctly?
Later, during a parent conference, she might translate: Your child has learned the different stages of a butterfly's development, but needs more experience in placing them in correct order.
To assess content knowledge and process skill development at the end of a unit, Cotter gives her students a challenge. For example, following her unit on magnets, she says: Create a game or toy that uses magnets. Then explain to another student how to play with it.
Using this method, Cotter assesses how well her students understand and can apply the principles of magnetism. She also assesses their ability to communicate clearly, another important process skill.
By formalizing assessment, Cotter and Johnson give their students experience as recorders and communicators. At the same time, they gain information about student abilities and needs so they can adjust their instruction accordingly. There's also an added benefit, says Cotter: "When you formalize the assessment process, it sets a level of expectation. Kids will rise to it and they'll do better work."
How Do Your Tests Measure Up?
Effective Paper-and-pencil Tests Include:
- Problems that require analysis. (How can this seed travel?)
- Problems that require more than one step to solve. (How are these seeds alike and different?)
- Problems with more than one correct solution. (Why do you think this seed didn't grow?)
- Opportunities for students to make up their own problems. (What else would you like to know about how plants grow? How could you find out?)
- Opportunities to use a variety of approaches to solve a problem. (Design a seed that can travel in two ways.)
- Problems with intentional errors that ask students to critique the way the problem is set up. (What is wrong with this picture?)
- Exercises that encourage students to estimate their answers and to check their results. (Estimate and then measure the length of this seed.)
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