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Editor's Corner

Assessment in the Science Classroom

The Science Teacher—February 2020 (Volume 87, Issue 6)

By Ann Haley Mackenzie

The word assessment conjures up so many questions for science teachers. Is it a necessary evil? When is it helpful and beneficial? What is lost during the mandatory weeks of proctoring standardized exams to our overtested, stressed, and, sometimes, apathetic students? 

I will never forget giving a state-mandated science exam to my ninth-grade biology students. One student put her head down on the table and did not budge. She didn’t attempt the test and refused to take it. She had, in fact, run away from a traumatic situation at home that day. The last thing on her mind was a test brought about by lawmakers who have never taught, but who believe it is their duty to often wreak havoc on teacher and students’ lives.

There are districts losing weeks of instructional time each year while their students take a plethora of standardized tests. These weeks do not include all the time some teachers spend preparing their students for these exams. I believe time is better spent doing science rather than testing the curiosity and wonder out of our students.

The research indicates that inquiry- and phenomenon-based science are the best ways to prepare students for these exams, assuming the exams are not just fact-based (Geier et al. 2008). What if you have a high school student functioning at the elementary level? What if you have students for whom English is a second language? The tests are often inequitable in these situations, even when students are provided support. 

We as teachers seem to be silent when it comes to arguing what should be going on in our science classrooms. NSTA provides a solid platform for expressing the concerns of science teachers in front of politicians, the media, and other sources needing to hear from us.

Authentic assessments, unlike standardized tests, have a vital role. They can demonstrate growth over time in the students. Utilizing authentic assessments that play to students’ strengths is an important area of consideration. If you are studying force, why not have a culminating assessment in which students demonstrate what they know and what they can do using a modality that is convincing and powerful. A strong art student could illustrate their knowledge by creating a comic strip, a YouTube video, a video game, or some other artistic endeavor. 

One size of assessment does not fit all. Play to your students’ strengths (Singer 2017). Give them the opportunity to decide just how they will demonstrate their knowledge. Adolescent learners need choices; their voices need to be part of the decision-making process for how they will be assessed. By providing them with various ways to demonstrate their understandings and conceptual knowledge, we can better determine the gaps and strengths in our teaching practices. 

After all, assessment means “the evaluation or estimation of the nature, quality, or ability of someone or something.” Do our assessments address the abilities of our students when it comes to their understanding of the NGSS core concepts, scientific and engineering practices, and the crosscutting concepts? If not, then change is in order. 




Geier, R., et al. 2008. Standardized test outcomes for students engaged in inquiry-based science curricula in the context of urban reform. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 45: 922–939.

Singer, M. 2017. Start with students’ strengths to promote learning. Gifted Education Communicator Spring: 23–25.

Assessment High School

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