Assessment is the process of collecting information for the purpose of making educational decisions. Paper and pencil tests traditionally have been used to assess students' factual knowledge of science. However, students are no longer just learning facts -- they are actually doing science and developing an understanding of basic science concepts. Inquiry-based teaching incorporates new learning goals and new forms of instruction, and therefore demands new forms of assessment. One of the major challenges facing teachers who use an inquiry-based approach is finding appropriate ways to help themselves and their students assess a complex combination of scientific knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
In every classroom there are at least two levels of assessment. Informal assessments are performed "on the fly" during the course of the lesson and can include such methods as questioning, looking at student drawings or data, reviewing written material, listening to students' conversations, and observing students working. Formal assessments, which support longer-term educational decisions and evaluations, can include oral questioning; student presentations; written work; performance assessments with hands-on equipment; and student journals, concept maps, and drawings.
Asking students to make predictions allows teachers to assess prior knowledge and to examine how well students can apply knowledge to new situations. Authentic assessment asks students to demonstrate their learning in situations that resemble those in real life, helping both teachers and students assess what students have learned. Mr. Bingman assesses what students have learned through small group work. Ms. Havlik creates opportunities for students to apply new knowledge to prior information.
Information generated by well-designed assessments serves many purposes. Teachers use assessments to find out what individuals or groups of students have learned and how they learned it, what proportion of their students has achieved adequate understanding, and what misunderstandings prevail. Using a range of assessments to find out what individuals or groups have learned, how they have learned it, and what misconceptions prevail gives Mr. Bingman and Ms. Havlik a roadmap for future lessons. The information gained from their assessments can help them structure lessons to address students' misconceptions and develop long-term goals for the class.