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The purpose of assessment is to allow teachers and students to evaluate the student's progress and set goals for future attainments, and for the teacher to plan or adapt future teaching. Therefore it must be reliable and in-depth; otherwise the results will not be a true reflection of the learners' abilities and their progression cannot be planned accurately. This essay will discuss the theoretical principles and practices of assessment, namely formative and summative assessment, and their place in the Scottish Secondary sector. Each will be discussed in turn and their reliability and validity in relation to each other examined. Formative assessment will be looked into in more detail and active research will be used to determine the effectiveness of a specific formative assessment technique and the overall use and value of formative assessment within the secondary science classroom.
Formative assessment occurs when the teacher uses feedback from the student "to adapt the teaching work to meet the needs" (Black and William, 1998, Pg2). Formative assessment takes place during the learning and usually within the classroom, it is also known as 'Assessment for Learning'. Assessment becomes formative when feedback or results lead to the teacher reacting in a way in which the students learning is improved.
Formative assessment can be unintentional or planned. Bell and Cowie (2000, Pg 547) in their research paper noted that "a frequent comment from the teachers was that they were not always consciously aware of doing formative assessment, and in particular unplanned or interactive formative assessment". Formative assessment can use written or oral work like summative assessment, but it can also use non-verbal information (Bell and Cowie, 2000, Pg 547) One teacher in Bell and Cowie's (2000) research paper describes using 'gut assessment' when teaching. An important part of formative assessment, for teachers, is being tuned in to the students and using intuition to decide how well the class, or a particular student, is coping with the lesson.
Another important feature of formative assessment is giving the students the opportunity to self-assess and include them in the teaching. Students should have input on what is being taught and the way in which it is being taught. Giving pupils control of their learning has the added benefits of affecting motivation and the self esteem of the pupils according to Black and William (1998, Pg 5)
Summative assessment usually takes place at the end of a topic or unit of work and so happens after the learning takes place. It is known as 'Assessment of Learning'. The feedback from it therefore cannot always be used to adapt the teaching, especially if it is at the end of the school year in a national exam. The feedback could only be used in this case when it comes to teaching the next set of pupils who will be taking part in the course. Summative assessment uses written or verbal information which is marked or graded. These formal results are used to construct reports or league tables which provide information on the child's abilities at a local and also national level. It is a reflection of what the child has learned over a set period of time. However, end of year or end of unit exams don't give a full picture of what each pupil knows, just what they can remember for the exam. The results may not always indicate whether the pupil has a deeper understanding of the material learned or if they have just reproduced the information for the exam.
Reliability of Assessment
'Formative and summative purposes of assessment have become confused in practice and that as a consequence assessment fails to have a truly formative role in learning' (Harlen and James, 1997, page 365)
The simplest approach to assessment is to ask questions which test the pupils' knowledge of the material which they are being assessed on. This approach makes the testing and marking easier and quicker. However, this does not examine whether the pupil has a deeper understanding of the material or if they are just regurgitating the notes from the lessons. Bruner and Shore (1996) suggest that the tendency toward ease and expediency of assessing students is why most college students, when they graduate, possess only a marginal understanding of what they have learned. 'Bloom's taxonomy is a tool to design, assess and evaluate student learning' (Lord and Baviskar, 2007, Page 41) Bloom's Taxonomy is a series of levels, each of which is a different degree of learning that teachers or educators can use to assess the ability of their students and which level they are achieving at. The six levels are knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Teachers or examiners can create questions based on each level, starting with knowledge questions which just require the student to use recall to answer the questions and moving up the levels to the highest where pupils are able to evaluate and discuss the ideas given to them and come to their own conclusions or ideas which they can also justify.
Both summative and formative assessment can use this technique to make the questions asked more reliable as they can assess the depth of the learning. The SQA exams use K.U (knowledge and understanding) questions and P.S (problem solving) questions in scientific subjects to assess not only whether the child has learned the material but also if they have understood it, which leads to them then being able to apply it correctly when analysing and solving a problem. This goes some way to keeping the assessment reliable as it tests both the ability of the student to recall the information and then applying it correctly.
In the Scottish Secondary sector, national assessment is summative and end of topic tests and end of course exams are used to assess student learning in Chemistry. There are practical examinations which also have strict summative criteria for students to achieve. For Chemistry as a subject both recall and application of the materials are important skills. Therefore this paper would argue that the exams are well designed in regards to the extent of the testing. In the Standard Grade course the students can be tested at two consecutive levels - foundation/general and general/credit. Whilst the students are following the course they are told which level the piece of work they are on is it. This allows the students to self assess as they can identify which levels they can cope with, which level they are ready to move on to, where improvement is needed and which areas they need to concentrate on.
In their article, Lord and Baviskar (2007) discuss the importance of creating questions which move students from 'information recitation to information understanding'. They argue that teachers and educators 'tend to present large amounts of factual information by telling students what they need to know through lecture. To evaluate learning, instructors formulate questions based on the recall and summarization of the information they provided earlier in the class' and that students are expected to 'regurgitate' the information. There is a danger therefore that students are not understanding the information they are learning but merely memorising it for exams and tests. If this is the case, will they simply 'forget' what they have been taught after their end of year national exams, once they don't 'need' it anymore? Lord and Baviskar suggest that the students should be challenged and also given opportunities to reflect on the information studied. Their solution is to 'create a series of queries in the taxonomy based on a single science theme'. Starting at the first level, students are asked questions which test their knowledge and recall of the information. From here they move through the levels and their understanding is tested by asking them to use the information in problem solving situations. As previously discussed, the national assessments in the Scottish Secondary sector test both the knowledge and understanding of the student using K.U and P.S questions.
However, based on Bloom's Taxonomy, the K.U questions cover the first and simplest level of the taxonomy - knowledge. So, the P.S questions cover the other five levels. Both sections of the exam count towards 40% of the final mark, hence, the knowledge level of Bloom's taxonomy is given 40% of the questions and the other five levels share 40%; that is if all five are present in the questions set. Lord and Baviskar also believe that 'instead of acting alone, the higher ordered thinking levels often merge'. This paper argues that the assessment of students in national exams is not very reliable based on the fact that recall is given the same weight, in these exams, as questions which test actual understanding. So, can the results then be valid when they are a test of whether a student can memorise the necessary information well enough to replicate it in the exam? Both summative and formative assessment can make use of this questioning technique. Teachers could create questions to quickly check the general understanding of a class or to test individuals who seem to be struggling.
Formative assessment techniques are being created all the time to allow teachers to assess their student abilities and needs. There are simple techniques such as 'no hands' up where the class do not raise their hands to answer questions, the teacher chooses a student after allowing everyone time to think of an answer. This means all students have to think of an answer and cannot just sit and allow others to answer the questions. There are techniques which take some more time and effort from the teacher, such as 'comment only marking'. In this method the teachers do not grade the students work, they write a comment which informs the student of what they did well and where they need to improve.
In the next section of this assignment, the effectiveness of a specific formative technique will be determined using action research. The technique which was researched over 4 periods in a standard grade chemistry class was called the 'exit ticket' This technique involves asking the students how they felt about the lesson; which parts they coped well with and which parts they felt they needed more time spent on in the class. This technique allows the students to self assess and reflect on their lesson and gives the teacher an opportunity to observe whether the lesson went well or if there are areas the lesson should be adapted. It also allows the teacher to reconsider their next lesson and change it to suit the needs of their class. For example, if there is an area of the lesson a large number of students struggled with they can then give time to it in the next lesson instead of moving on when there are students who could be left behind.