Assessment: an integral part of teaching and learning
The assessment of children's learning is an essential and on-going part of the teaching and learning process in SESE: in some form it will be part of every lesson in science, geography and history. Teachers are constantly making judgements about their pupils' learning as they plan how to introduce new areas of knowledge, concepts and skills, consolidate earlier lessons, assess the progress of individual pupils, identify difficulties, and praise and encourage learners.
Assessment enhances the teacher's awareness of each individual's learning, provides accurate information about the child's understanding and skills, and creates a picture of the child's holistic development throughout the broad range of curricular areas. It provides the basis for decisions about the pupil's further learning needs, assists in planning better educational experiences and is a natural element of a progressive child-centred curriculum.
Roles of assessment: Why assess in SESE?
Assessment enhances teaching and learning in a number of ways. Primarily, assessment in SESE, as in other areas of the curriculum, should assist in planning and supporting future learning for the child. Assessment should indicate the positive achievements of each pupil as he/she is engaged in the study of scientific, historical and geographical topics and should indicate possible areas of development in the child's learning. Used in this way, assessment plays a constructive, formative role in the child's education. Information gained about the child's learning will be used primarily by the teacher but it will also involve the pupil in self-evaluation and in the setting of personal learning targets.
Assessment will also indicate areas of learning difficulty encountered by the child. The learning difficulties identified in SESE may include weaknesses in the child's understanding, gaps in his/her knowledge or a lack of certain skills. As assessment fulfils this diagnostic role, it should help the teacher to identify approaches or learning experiences that could help to improve the child's learning. At times learning difficulties may be identified in one aspect of the child's scientific, historical or geographical development, but on other occasions a weakness encountered in one area of SESE will reveal information about the child's learning in the other SESE curricula. Many teaching and learning experiences in science, geography and history draw on and use a wide range of skills and concepts, so SESE may also provide valuable opportunities to gain evidence of a childÕs progress in areas such as mathematics, language and social development.
Assessment should provide an indication of the child's overall achievement in a systematic way at regular intervals. Assessment may be used to fulfil this summative role when teachers seek to establish the outcomes of learning following completion of a unit of work or when they report to audiences beyond the child, for example when they communicate with parents or other teachers about the child's progress.
Assessment can also help the teacher to evaluate the suitability of the SESE programme selected by the teacher and school for a particular age group and can assist the teacher in assessing the effectiveness of the educational resources, methodologies and approaches deployed. Used in this evaluative role, assessment can help to identify how the learning experience could be improved for the child.
Assessment in science
To fulfil these various functions successfully, assessment must be valid and must seek to measure and report on the child's progress and achievements throughout all aspects of the science curriculum. The assessment techniques in science must focus on knowledge objectives, understanding of scientific concepts, competence in the application of experimental and investigative skills and the cultivation of important attitudes.
Strands and strand units
The strands and strand units of the science curriculum outline the knowledge areas of the curriculum and suggest ways in which scientific skills may be developed as these units of work are completed. The objectives and italicised exemplars indicate the range of knowledge that may be expected at each level, and the section 'Planning a unit of work' in the accompanying teacher guidelines illustrates how these may be used to form the basis of teaching and learning activities. The knowledge objectives outlined in these units should form one aspect of assessment.
Schools and teachers have considerable flexibility in the selection of appropriate topics for the science programme. Side by side with this flexibility is the requirement of achieving a balance between the four strands, i.e. Living things, Materials, Energy and forces and Environmental awareness and care. The strand Environmental awareness and care is a major cross-curricular link and has been designed so that it will be delivered through the science and the geography curricula. Many strand units of the geography and science curricula integrate with each other and a coordinated approach in the teaching of both these areas within SESE will be required. The flexibility offered by the curriculum and the requirement that children study units from different strands makes comprehensive planning, effective summative assessment and record keeping essential within the school.
Science is about understanding certain aspects of the physical world around us, and it involves testing and changing ideas about how natural and manufactured things work. Practical investigation is central to scientific activity of all kinds. Children begin from their ideas and change and develop these ideas by testing them in practical investigations. The development of knowledge, concepts and skills is interdependent, and the assessment of both these aspects of the scientific process is of equal importance. At each class level of the curriculum the sections 'Working scientifically' and 'Designing and making' outline the specific skills that will enable children to develop ideas and make sense of the world around them. The objectives listed in these sections indicate the degree of skill that should be expected of children working at each level.
The skills outlined in 'Working scientifically', which include questioning, observing, predicting, investigating and experimenting, estimating, measuring and analysing, mirror those included in the geography curriculum under the heading 'Geographical investigation skills'. Their inclusion in the geography curriculum indicates that an investigative approach should inform children's explorations of the environment and that significant aims of the science curriculum can be achieved through geographical topics. Opportunities for the application of science investigation skills arise both in geography and science, and assessment techniques will therefore have to take cognisance of the wide range of units within which skills can be assessed.
The assessment of skills is a complex activity. Process skills of science are concerned with activity and application and are therefore less readily assessed by techniques that rely on a written or other product. The performance of some process skills has to be observed in action so that the teacher can be confident that they have been used and can judge the level of operation. The ability with which a primary child applies process skills is demonstrated best in practical investigations, where the concepts being developed are discussed and tested and approaches to solving problems in real contexts are explored. Thus if assessment is to be a valid indicator of the children's scientific understanding it must seek to record and acknowledge the ability that pupils demonstrate in a variety of practical learning situations.
Values, attitudes and responsibilities
Assessment in science will also be concerned with values and attitudes that are developed in the child as he/she is engaged in the study of scientific topics. Through science education children will develop attitudes of curiosity to try new experiences, to find out how things work, to explore and to discover more about the things around them. Through their scientific investigations children develop informed critical and scientific perspectives, which acknowledge the importance of founding judgements on a respect for evidence. This involves the child in developing attitudes of open-mindedness to the ideas of others and a willingness to consider conflicting evidence and ideas. Helping children to understand that scientific ideas are tentative should encourage the development of attitudes of flexibility and the ability to modify their ideas in the light of new evidence.
This growth in skills of enquiry and concepts should be accompanied by a development of sensitivity towards living things and the cultivation of a personal sense of responsibility towards local and wider environments. Science investigations based on the strands Living things and Environmental awareness and care will encourage children to become active agents in the conservation of environments and to adopt responsible attitudes and behaviour that will promote more sustainable use of the Earth's resources. The development of these attitudes is fostered by a balanced curriculum of scientific topics based in local and wider environments. The provision of opportunities for children to work scientifically in the outdoor environment will make a significant contribution to the cultivation of positive attitudes. Assessment of the child's attitudes in science will rely strongly on the teacher's observations and his/her professional judgement of the child's approach to scientific investigations. Field trips, working in the school garden, tending the bird table and nature walks and trails are examples of opportunities for the teacher to observe the child's patterns of behaviour towards the environment.
Assessment tools: how to assess
Assessment in science is concerned with the children's mastery of knowledge and understanding of the strands of the science programme and the development of skills and attitudes. Consequently a broad range of assessment tools and approaches will be necessary. The assessment techniques employed will arise naturally out of teaching and learning, and their effectiveness will be dependent on teacher skills of observation, listening, interacting with pupils and scrutinising the outcomes of learning tasks used in science. Reliable judgements of pupils performance need to take into account the capacity of children to achieve in a variety of contexts. Thus assessment will be a continuous process and will be part of the normal teaching and learning situations.
The following are among the assessment tools that schools will find most useful in science:
- teacher observation
- teacher-designed tasks and tests
- work samples, portfolios and projects
- curriculum profiles.
It should be understood that it may be neither practicable nor desirable to use all these tools in every learning situation or within a particular time span.
Observations made by the teacher during practical science tasks provide opportunities to assess the development of process skills and attitudes and to establish the extent to which children have mastered the knowledge aspects of the science programme. Teachers should take into account criteria outlined in the school plan, the skills and knowledge objectives of the science curriculum and the levels of maturation of the pupils when forming judgements based on their observations of children's practical tasks. These knowledge and skill objectives might form the basis for guidelines for describing children's progress at different class levels. Check-lists of specific items related to particular tasks might be devised. For example, for children in first and second classes such a check-list might include such questions as:
- Had the child a clear idea about the purpose of the investigation?
- Did the child ask questions that related to the problem?
- Did the child make observations using more than one sense?
Informal observation of practical tasks in science will involve the teacher in taking an active role in the learning situation. Through open-ended questions the teacher can gain an insight into the children's conceptual understanding, attitudes to scientific investigations and use of process skills. During these observation periods the teacher may make written notes so that further work for an individual or group can be planned and a record kept for future reference.
Other observations of children's learning and activity may be planned and structured. In these observations the teacher will generally concentrate on seeking evidence of one or two process skills, for example on the extent to which pupils plan experiments during one lesson and ask questions during the next. The teacher will watch the children as they work and listen to their interactions so as to obtain evidence of skills or scientific ideas.
Observation in the science lesson will focus on:
- individual discussion
- how a child carries out an investigation as part of a group
- the group, and the interaction of individuals within the group
- the responses the child makes to the teacher's questions and suggestions
- the participation of the child at different stages of investigation, for example planning, identifying variables and evaluating
- the way the child reacts to tasks and to the identification and solution of problems in a variety of environments.
The assessment of practical tasks in science takes a wide variety of forms. Written records, drawings and reports of investigations provide children with a record of their own work. However, they rarely supply the teacher with the information required about the level of skill used and the way in which children work. Teacher observation, discussion and questioning of children during practical tasks allow assessment of the performance of skills.
Practical tasks may focus on
- a specific practical skill or process skill, for example the ability to use measuring instruments in a scientific investigation or the ability to make observations
- a number of skills being used at the same time
- open-ended investigations, for example the ability of the child to identify and control variables
- model-making in problem-solving contexts
- explorations and investigations in the outdoor environment.
Teacher-designed tasks and tests
Throughout the units of the science curriculum teachers will identify opportunities for children to engage in a range of tasks. These will have a number of purposes. Some will be designed to engage the child in asking questions and thinking about scientific concepts and knowledge, while others will promote a range of scientific and technological skills. Some representational record, whether written, drawn, sculpted or modelled, that can be used to convey the children's ideas, questions and discoveries is necessary to build up a precise picture of the child's achievements in a variety of contexts. Children's reactions to these tasks will indicate their progress in science.
A wide variety of tasks should be provided for children, including:
- observing both inside and outside the classroom
- recognising patterns in observations and evidence
- analysing objects and processes and hypothesising about how models and systems work or are made
- predicting outcomes of an investigation
- collecting information from sources such as direct observation in the environment and in the classroom using books and other materials
- asking questions
- providing oral, written and pictorial accounts of investigations or stages of investigationsand experiments
- completing and displaying projects and reports of topic work
- using workcards or activity sheets that guide children to apply process skills
- designing, making and evaluating models and structures that provide solutions to problems
- evaluating the evidence generated by an investigation
- using interactive multimedia computer programs that enable the child to explore scientific themes and topics and complete a range of tasks and problems
- exploring and engaging in practical investigations in the environment
- completing teacher-designed revision tests on a unit or units of work
- evaluating the outcomes of design-and-make activitiesdisplaying and reporting project work in progress or when completed
- estimating, measuring or comparing
- making drawings of the evidence of visual observations, plans for investigations or methods to be used in investigations. The value of expressing ideas through drawing with labels is greatly increased if the teacher discusses the drawing with the child and annotates it as a result of asking questions.
One of the primary principles on which the science curriculum is based is the recognition that children come to school with preconceived ideas about the biological and physical world. The childÕs initial ideas must be explored and taken seriously if they are to form the starting point for learning. Concept-mapping helps children to record and discuss their ideas as the starting point for learning. Concept maps are schematic representations of relationships between concepts. A list of concept words that are known and that can be linked together is drawn up in discussion with the children, who are then asked to draw lines and write joining words between the different words. The results can be analysed to give an insight into the relationships that children see between things. They provide the teacher with information about the ideas children commonly hold and about how they can explore and respond to the ideas of their own pupils.
Work samples, portfolios and projects
The compilation of a range of samples of a child's work to form a science portfolio provides a systematic means whereby progress can be documented and assessed over a term, a year or a longer period. Products arising at all stages of an investigation will indicate the children's ideas. The shape used for a boat, the way a tower is constructed to support something, or how Plasticine is moulded to make it float provide teachers with an understanding of how children are thinking and of the ideas they are developing. The portfolios should contain samples of work in progress or what the individual child considers to be 'best samples' of finished pieces together with the teacher's comments. The samples included in the portfolios should demonstrate the children's achievement in a range of areas. Several samples of work in one area may be included to show the progression and development of childrenÕs ideas and process skills.
Written accounts or drawings, photographs of stages of an investigation, graphs, samples of worksheets or audio tapes of children's reports of investigations might also be enclosed.
Reviewing the contents of the portfolio with the pupil can encourage the child in self-assessment and the setting of new learning targets. It also provides an excellent basis for the reporting of pupils achievements to teachers, parents and others, and can allow weaknesses to be identified. In addition, the systematic analysis of science portfolios can allow the teacher to evaluate the content, methodologies and approaches he/she has used over a term or year.
Teachers may find curriculum profiles useful for the systematic observation and recording of children's progress and achievements while work is being done in science. The profile consists of descriptions of the range of knowledge, skills and attitudes that might be expected of children at different stages of development. These descriptions, sometimes written in the form of short paragraphs, are indicators of behaviours or abilities that children may demonstrate. Teachers seek to match their observations of pupils to the indicators in the profiles as work on units is in progress or is completed and at other regular intervals. Where aspects of paragraphs are marked or highlighted in line with pupil achievement, profiles can also serve recording and reporting functions.
The indicators relating to scientific skills should be based on the sections 'Working scientifically' and 'Designing and making', while the other indicators should be based on the knowledge content of those strand units that are included in a school's science programme and on the attitudes that are described in the aims and broad objectives of this curriculum statement. The emphasis placed on the local environment and the close links which the strand units and skills sections of the science curriculum have with the geography curriculum should also be borne in mind.
The discussion of curriculum profiles by teachers from clusters of schools would enhance their reliability as assessment tools. Such discussion would have the added advantage of contributing to increased expertise in the organisation of activities in science for pupils.
A balanced approach to assessment in SESE
The primary aim of all assessment is to enhance the learning experiences of the child, and it will be important that the assessment techniques employed in science and in other areas of SESE should not detract from teaching time. The school's policy for science should guide teachers in using assessment tools in a manageable and reliable way that is closely integrated with teaching and learning. The development and use of common approaches to recording teacher observations, the outcomes of learning experiences and the compilation of portfolios and curriculum profiles will facilitate a balanced and practical approach to assessment in the school.
Recording and communicating
Teacher observations, teacher-designed tasks and tests and work samples and portfolios, together with curriculum profiles and pupil profile cards, constitute a comprehensive system of assessing and recording each child's progress and achievements in the science programme. The pooling and discussion of this information among the teaching staff can enable teachers to share expertise and develop a common understanding of pupil progress and assessment in SESE (in a process referred to as moderation). Such co-operation can help to ensure continuity and reliability in the use of the assessment tools.
The range of assessment tools in SESE should provide essential information about the child's learning for pupils, teachers, schools, parents and other professionals and so facilitate future decisions about the child's learning. Teacher-parent discussions will provide opportunities for parental feedback and will enhance the overall assessment of the child.
Pupil profile card
The recording and communication of this information about the child's progress will be facilitated by the use of a pupil profile card. The pupil's profile card, which may be developed for use in all primary schools, should contain a summative assessment of the child's progress in all curricular areas and of other aspects of his/her development. The teacher's professional judgement of the child's development in science, based on the outcomes of teaching, learning and assessment throughout the year, will form one aspect of the profile card. The section of the profile card for SESE should be sufficiently flexible to allow for the highly integrated nature of the area in infant, first and second classes. As the profile card should provide a basis for the planning of the child's future in another class or school, it should include, or be accompanied by, information regarding the selection of science topics that the child has explored.
The possibilities and advantages offered by information technology in facilitating the recording, storage and transfer of pupil profile records should be explored and if possible used in the compilation of any widely used pupil profiling system.