In recent years there has been a rapid expansion of interest in inquiry-based science education (IBSE). Classroom and laboratory practices and materials which encourage students to take an active part in making sense of events and phenomena in the world around are being promoted and developed through pilot projects in countries across the globe. Embracing inquiry-based education recognises its potential to enable students to develop the understandings, competences, attitudes and interests needed by everyone for life in societies increasingly dependent on applications of science. Inquiry leads to knowledge of the particular objects or phenomena investigated, but more importantly, it helps to build broad concepts that have wide explanatory power, enabling new objects or events to be understood. It also engenders reflection on the thinking processes and learning strategies that are necessary for continued learning throughout life.

There are, however, many challenges in implementing IBSE. Central among these is the assessment of students’ learning since this has a strong influence on what is taught and how it is taught.

The decision to write this book was stimulated by the international conference held in Helsinki, 30 May to 1 June 2012.  The conference – jointly planned by the Global Network of Science Academies (IAP), ALLEA (All European Academies), the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters and Finland’s Science Education Centre (LUMA) – was entitled Developing Inquiry-Based Science Education: New Issues.

The issues concerned the roles of assessment in IBSE and the relationship of IBSE with industry. The greater part of the conference was concerned with issues relating to assessment, which is the focus of this book. The Science Education Programme (SEP) of the IAP, under the leadership of its founder, Professor Jorge Allende, held major international conferences on various aspects of IBSE in 2005, 2008 and 2010, interspersed with meetings of working groups to plan and report on activities. The project has also sponsored activities through four Regional Networks of academies across the world.

IBSE assessment

Following the retirement of Professor Allende, the SEP has been led by Professor Pierre Lena since 2011. Throughout the work of the IAP SEP it has been recognised that the role of student assessment has become increasingly important in the understanding and implementation of IBSE. Assessment is a key aspect of strategic planning for education change. Accompanying the spread of pilot projects there has been a demand for information about the effectiveness of IBSE in order to justify the resources needed for its implementation. Good measures of the outcomes of IBSE are needed for this. But providing information about students’ achievement is only one role of assessment; its role in helping learning and developing deeper understanding relating to the goals of science education has gained considerable support in recent years throughout the world.

However, the acknowledged influence of what is assessed on curriculum content and pedagogy means that assessment can also restrain change in science education when established assessment methods and content do not reflect the goals of IBSE. Addressing the issues that inhibit the implementation of IBSE becomes more important in view of the value of inquiry-based learning in developing those skills which are required by the current and future work force. For these reasons the Global Council of the IAP SEP at its meeting in Paris in April 2011 decided that student assessment would be a major focus of its 2012 conference and led to the decision to produce this book.
The presentations at the Helsinki conference, and particularly the discussions among the 93 participants from 50 countries, indicated major concerns relating to student assessment, briefly outlined here under six headings:

  • The need for clarification of terms
  • Understanding the interactions between assessment, pedagogy, curriculum content and education policy frameworks
  • The role of tests, tasks and teachers in assessing IBSE
  • Fitness of assessment for different purposes
  • Challenges of making changes in assessment
  • The need for more research relating to assessment.

The need for clarification of terms

If we are to make progress in developing policy and practice in relation to the assessment of IBSE it is clearly important for there to be a shared understanding of the words used. Discussion at the conference uncovered some confusion about the meaning of key terms such as assessment, testing, and evaluation, and about the difference between formative and summative assessment. Language differences may be a problem here, particularly where a language has a single word to mean both assessment and evaluation. It also appeared that the meaning of IBSE continued to be rather narrowly interpreted as concerned only with the development of skills. This is understandable given that IBSE has been introduced in some countries as an antidote to textbook-based teaching. However, having a common view of what IBSE means in practice and how it differs from other approaches to teaching and learning is not only necessary for implementation but essential as a platform for developing assessment. Conference participants pointed out that, apart from the meanings of words, there are cultural differences underlying the discourse about IBSE and its assessment, leading to different systemic visions which need to be recognised and debated.

Understanding the interactions between assessment, pedagogy, the curriculum content and education policy frameworks

There was a general consensus that what is assessed influences the priority given by teachers to various goals of learning and therefore it is essential that all important goals are included in what is assessed. It was suggested that this would be facilitated if the curriculum and assessment were constructed together by the same agencies, to avoid inspirational goals being effectively converted into a series of disconnected tasks. A related point, made by several participants, was that assessment should be consistent with the theory of learning that underpins IBSE. There was a strong opinion that the connection between good assessment, the implementation of IBSE and the development of key scientific ideas needs to be spelled out. A description is needed of what is meant by ‘quality’ in science learning and how this is different at different ages as students progress in their learning ‘of science’ and ‘about science’. Assessment should support, and be seen to support, the development of good citizenship and of the knowledge and skills needed to tackle major global problems. Educational policies based on ambitions for high levels of performance in tests and international surveys need to be reconciled with concerns for high quality education for all.

The role of tests, tasks and teachers in assessing IBSE

The conference participants recognised that the nature of IBSE poses many conceptual, logistic and technical challenges for student assessment. Conceptually, assessment procedures should enable an understanding of what it means to say someone has learned science well. This implies clarity about the goals of science education and how IBSE contributes to them. Technically, the challenges are to ensure reliability without compromising validity. The agreed aims of developing confident, autonomous and collaborative learners are hard to assess directly and surrogate measures reflecting these qualities have to be sought. It was recognised that it is almost impossible for tests of a reasonable length that can be taken by all students to provide the rich information needed to assess IBSE goals.

Furthermore, producing and administering tests incurs a high cost in time as well as other resources. Participants affirmed that teachers should be involved in conducting assessment at some or all stages of schooling. It was suggested that feedback on the outcomes of assessment and teacher appraisal could have a role in strengthening teachers’ assessment skills. The impact of school culture has also to be recognised. Teachers may be constrained in adopting new approaches to teaching and assessment by accountability measures which take a narrow view of teaching and learning science.

Fitness of assessment for different purposes

For assessment to be used to help learning means that teachers incorporate formative assessment strategies as part of their pedagogy rather than adding a series of mini-summative assessment events. For summative assessment, tests are commonly used for checking performance at the end of topics or courses and for producing reports on progress at regular intervals. It was widely agreed that most science tests used by teachers do not reflect the goals of IBSE. Since tests have a strong influence on what is taught, it is important to consider alternatives to most current forms of test in order to obtain more dependable information about the learning that results from IBSE. Some conference participants expressed the view that using test results for the purposes of accountability inhibits learning. It was noted that large scale test programmes such as TIMSS and PISA use methods that do not support valid inferences about performance in IBSE at the system level. However, it was recognised that such survey results do have a role but should be regarded as just one indicator of system performance, to be considered within a framework of information about other aspects.

Challenges of making changes in assessment policy and practice

Some of the greatest changes and the greatest challenges to change were perceived by conference participants as being in relation to involving teachers in assessment. They need help to develop ‘assessment literacy’. Several goals of IBSE are better assessed by teachers. The classroom opportunities that have to be provided for students to learn through IBSE are equally opportunities for teachers to assess and record their students’ developing understanding and skills. Teachers also need tools to support their formative and summative assessment.  In many countries there are challenges in relation to participation of girls in science, but there is no evidence of gender differences in competence in IBSE. It is important to influence pre-service course providers so that teachers enter the profession aware of IBSE and how it should be included in their assessment practice. Conference delegates also advised that politicians, administrators, parents and the public in general need to be educated about the meanings, purposes, strengths and limitations of assessment.

The need for more research relating to assessment

Research reported in conference presentations provided striking evidence of the need to rethink certain aspects of how students are assessed if this is to give them opportunities to show what they know and can do. Confidence in the accuracy of some assessment results is often shaken by research showing that how students approach a question or task and what processes of thinking they use in tackling it are not what was intended and assumed to be the case when results are interpreted. More such studies are needed in order to improve the validity of assessment tools and procedures and to deter unrealistic assumptions of accuracy. It is known that even minor changes in format and working of written questions can influence students’ performance but less is known about the differential impact on students of different gender, experience, and background. Several other areas where research is needed were mentioned. These include: the impact of alternatives to tests; the combination of different types of evidence that provides the best picture of certain kinds of student performance; how trust in teacher-based assessment can be increased; how to train teachers in both the formative and summative uses of assessment; how to combine formative and summative assessment in national and district assessment systems.

The focus of this book

In this book, as in the conference, we have distinguished between two sets of issues, concerning:

  • the processes and uses of assessment of students’ learning, and
  • the value of inquiry-based science education and the evaluation of its effectiveness.

The first of these relates to the various issues, summarised above, that arise from recognising the role student assessment plays as an integral part of students’ learning experiences. Assessment was once regarded as something that takes place after learning and as being quite separate from the process of learning. This view is no longer tenable; assessment is now acknowledged as a central part of education, with a proven role in helping learning as well as in reporting it. How the results of student assessment are used is recognised as having an important influence, which can be positive or negative, on the content and methods of teaching. Thus the nature of the assessment, and particularly the extent to which it allows students to show what they know and can do in relation to intended learning goals, are key factors in students’ education. In the context of IBSE it is a matter of concern that most current assessment tools and procedures fall short of what is needed to provide a good account of students’ achievement of the goals of IBSE.

In relation to the second of these sets of issues, the value of IBSE is not a matter that can be decided by empirical evidence, but is a value judgement that the competences, understanding, interests and attitudes that are its aims are worthwhile and indeed are necessary in a modern education. What programme evaluation can show is the extent to which students achieve these aims through experiences designed to implement IBSE. Assessment of students has a role in programme evaluations, but there are many other factors involved. In particular what students achieve is only informative in relation to IBSE outcomes if there is evidence that students are truly learning through inquiry and that the data provided by the assessment enable inferences to be drawn about the scientific understanding and science inquiry skills that are the aims of IBSE. The nature of the assessment of students’ learning in science is one of the main factors holding back the implementation of IBSE programmes.

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