Building an Assessment Activity

ACASE assessments are designed to motivate students to delve more deeply into the subject matter at hand as well as to provide information on the extent to which learning goals have been attained. They present the mysteries inherent in natural phenomena, reveal the intricacies of scientific investigation, and lead students to the conclusion that there is a way to solve the mysteries by engaging in the intricacies.

Backward Design

“While the idea of focusing on student learning goals is simple, its implications are profound. It means turning school improvement activities on their heads. Frequently, school improvement begins with some activity such as implementing a new curriculum. Clearly, the planners want these innovations to improve student learning, but they are often unclear about what they mean by student learning, how they will measure it, and whether their actions are getting them where they want to go. The result is a vicious cycle of doing, doing, doing without knowing the effect on learning.” — Nancy Love, Using Data/Getting Results

Contrary to the conventional practice of providing instruction and then developing tests to assess the effects of instruction, the ideal sequence for the design of educational programs is as follows:

  1. Identify intended learning outcomes (learning goals).
  2. Identify ways to assess whether the goals have been achieved.
  3. Plan instruction to achieve the goals.
  4. Carry out the instruction.
  5. Assess the extent of student achienement.
  6. Modify the instrutional plans.

It is often wise to administer an assessment of intended learning outcomes before the planning of instruction. This process is described in detail in Johnson’s Intentionality in Education (PDF, 2MB). Wiggins and McTighe refer to it as “Backward Design” (2005)

Operational Learning Goals

Learning goals can be derived from national and state standards, local policy decisions, and school and teacher initiatives. For example, AAAS Benchmarks for Science Literacy (1993) identify broad learning goals that require greater specificity to be useful for planning lessons.

We believe that intended learning outcomes must be defined at a level that supports teaching and learning. Fortunately, this same level of detail provides valuable information for school, school district, state, and federal policy makers.

These detailed statements of intended outcomes are what we refer to as operational learning goals, or simply OLGs.

There are an infinite number of such goals, and infinite variations within goals. For this reason we suggest beginning with the most important, most valued goals. Particularly we suggest working with core capabilities— those capabilities that are likely to have the greatest impact on future learning and other desired outcomes.

The Use of a Story

We generally begin assessment activities by telling a story related to the underlying learning goals.  The story should have several qualities:

  • Cueing the student to the phenomenon, activity and/or learning goal that will follow
  • Taking the student to a different time and place (e.g., Egyptian Africa at the time of Eratosthenes)
  • Providing a link to the broader curriculum (e.g., mathematics, technology, art, literature, history)
  • Introducing feeling and imagination into the presentation

The resulting effects are

  • An antidote to insularity of learning (e.g., relating what is taking place in the community and the world)
  • An antidote to boredom that may have set in as a characteristic of the educational setting

Working with Natural Phenomena

Our assessments engage students with natural phenomena so that students are learning as they observe and reflect, even during the course of an assessment.  The amazement engendered in some students when, for example, a cube that sank in one liquid floats in a second one, motivates them to want to understand the nature of the phenomenon.  Natural phenomena provide endless variations, subtleties, and unexpected manifestations. Modern natural science is a method of obtaining knowledge of the natural universe by building and testing theories concerning natural phenomena. Thus this aspect of the assessments gives an authenticity as well as immediacy to the student’s experience.

The assessment can provide a motivation for instruction that is yet to come.  This quality makes an assessment efficient. That is, rather than taking time away from teaching, it actually supports teaching through its educational and motivational aspects.

Reading is not Required

ACASE Assessment Activities are presented in such a way that students are not required to be able to read in order to complete the requirements of the assessment. In our experience, many students who are severely disadvantaged in reading abilities are able to meet the writing requirements of the assessment tasks.

The same does not hold true for mathematical abilities however. The scientific and technical capabilities and concepts that are measured in ACASE assessments are often highly dependent on logical-mathematical abilities.

Desirable features of an Assessment Activity

Broadly, assessments should be valid, reliable, fair, and efficient.