Valuing Assessment in Science Education

corriganRating: ★★★★★

Deborah Corrigan, Richard Gunstone and Alister Jones. 2013. Valuing assessment in Science Education: pedagogy, curriculum, policy. Springer. ISBN 978 94 007 6667 9

“change in education is easy to propose, hard to implement and extraordinarily difficult to sustain: (p101).


One of the more pressing issues in modern education is the development of some form of assessment. The whole term has become laden with alternative meanings of which, the initial and simplest, is to explore the student’s understanding of an area of work as demonstrated by the accuracy and development of that work through some form of response. In even simpler terms, marking homework or an essay etc.! However, it is clear that assessment now has to serve a variety of  purposes far removed from these older ideas. Today, all involved in the production and recording side (i.e. staff) need to be aware not only of what they are asking but the context within which it is produced. Less certain, of course, is what the student makes of such a process but hopefully that too will change.

In terms of modern curricula, science is one of the key subjects and as such, subject to scrutiny as never before. Both UK and Australian systems have science as a core subject and mandated at least to the end of compulsory education. National curriculum reforms have attempted to revise both content and context of science as well as making adjustments for age-suitable concepts. From these points it becomes obvious that assessment will form a major part of the work partly for policy and partly for pedagogical reasons. The aim of this text is to provide an insight into some of the complexities involved and to shed light on current practice. As such, it forms the third part of a series dedicated to developing science values and pedagogy.

Assessment is a term laden with values and one that is used in different contexts by different people. It might be argued that there should be one overarching theme but I think that over-simplifies that nature of assessment as it has developed today. As the editors make clear in the opening chapter, assessment serves a number of, ideally related, functions. Policy sets the overarching tone for the subject. Given the rise of national curricula, this means that the politicians and a range of science educators come to some common understanding as to the nature of science. From this, we often get a national curriculum and the associated framework for assessment. The former provides the content and the latter notes the extent to which an individual (or groups) has reached a prescribed level of understanding. If we take these at face value, then we can see that all elements of the subject are open to interpretation based on what the policy (for this sort of thing is set at policy level) requires.  This book considers all the elements and adds scale to the mix.

The text proper starts with a consideration of international testing on science understanding. The two common ones –TIMSS and PISA are used to compare nations and age groups. They are often used by policy-makers (or at least politicians) to make some sweeping statements about learning (or, more often, to decry one’s own results against a notional “high-performing nation”). What we see in this chapter, by contrast, is a consideration of how these tests can actually be used for good – by looking at the broader context of the way in which science is understood by a cohort of students rather than a nation.  If we can move beyond the headlines, we are told, there is indeed pedagogical value to be found. A companion chapter adds to the debate by turning the issue round from what it tells us about science education to how it shapes that debate.

A useful quote leads us to the next element. By defining the purpose of assessment as “the support of learning with certification..and … satisfying demands for public accountability” (p55) we see the three main parts of assessment, only part of which is to help learning whilst the others place a level of competence on the individual (certification)  or system (accountability).  Given that we cannot alter this, the aim then is to create a system that assesses accurately and consistently. To do this, we need to have a very clear idea of what we want assessment to do and then to devise systems which allow it to happen. Whilst that is the more theoretical end of the debate, a following contribution puts assessment back into the student-learning context and suggests ideas to make assessment valuable in the learners eyes. Using ideas of “authentic assessment” the aim is to  create tasks that reflect the wider world than the subject lesson and provide a stimulus and context for learning. As a pair, the suggestion here is that assessment is valuable but must be placed in an arena of student understanding. Further contributions suggest that however valuable a change is deemed to be, the more elements you are considering, the more complex it will be. Furthermore, we need to consider the considerable inertia that a subject devlops. A study reported here suggests that despite all changes, the core precepts of science have endured over 40 years!

The next chapters turn to the perspective of the teacher. Assessment is not just by teachers it is also for teachers but not in the usual sense of providing the job or marking but also the way it shapes thinking. Not just the questions but the way the tests are set up will influence teacher perceptions of the subject. High stakes testing is seen to limit discourse, more school-assessment work tends to the opposite perspective.  This narrow view can be overcome we are told but it requires a real effort to see the possibilities that a more creative approach might allow.

The remaining chapters focus on the relationship between the teacher and assessment. A number of common themes transcend scale and nation. Formative (as opposed to summative) assessment is seen as valuable, perhaps the most valuable in shaping responses to science and science education. Another theme explored in some detail is the way in which the age of the child affects assessment. A study of early childhood assessment outlines a range of techniques that can gather useful data without the tests easy to older children. Here, the action of the child is seen as important. Alternatively, it’s the task that could be central. By carefully addressing the context within which the task takes place it is possible to modify work to suit circumstances – to accept the levels of diversity that are present in the modern school. In modern pedagogy, the student is central and the resulting work must be seen to “engage” or “enthuse”  him/her. Whilst this might not seem the remit of assessment we must recall the  ideas early on in the book that suggest assessment should be positive i.e. how much can they do, as opposed to negative, what can’t they do. There is no reason why a task cannot engage the student mind. Examples noted here suggest that real-world, practical, relevant examples work best. Given that most examination models are based on the positive model of what the student knows, clearly it is in everyone’s interest to bring those ideas out into the open.

A final chapter aims to synthesise the key views of the contributors. No mean feat given the range of ideas presented but there are a number of overarching themes that can be recognised. The first of these is the need for assessment, curriculum and policy to be developed in a symbiosis not as single elements that might come together. This is more than the notion of backward mapping but more a question of each element working to create an overall whole. The second item to be drawn out is student voice – the idea that to be effective, the user (i.e. student) must be involved.

This is an excellent treatise on the nature of modern assessment. It gets away from the narrow view of assessment as a set of marks and deconstructs the term to study the nuances behind it. The contributors demand that the reader takes more notice of what is being done in his/her name and considers the value, purpose , scope and practicalities of assessment. It takes the theory and blends it with a real, practical understanding of what is needed and how it works. There are numerous highlights, but for one who has been working is international assessment for years, three stand out. The real use of international assessments is excellent. These tests are often misused by senior school staff (and academics and the government!). The demand that formative assessment take a leading role in assessing the degree to which learning has occurred is heartening. It has been known for many years but to see it elevated in the assessment pantheon is good. The third highlight is the way in which students can and should take their place in assessment practice. There is no suggestion that students make the assessment policy but there are real benefits form students making the rules about examinations and the content they want to be judged on. It takes assessment theory into the C21st. What is covered, is covered well. As with any text, there are one’s favourite topics not found but here it is hard to see any major gaps. One, ipsative assessment, is worth a mention. By comparing the student with themselves a real pattern of change can be seen.

Overall, an excellent text. It covers the ground superbly and opens the eyes of educators to the myriad possibilities that assessment can bring. Although it is focussed on science, there is no reason why the bulk of the book could not apply to any examination subject and age of student. It deserves the widest readership in departments of education as well as in schools.


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