Assessment in science – a changing perspective

Garima Bansal

Science is a dynamic and ever evolving discipline. Science literacy involves critical thinking, the ability to construct understanding, document and communicate knowledge, and to take informed action. A science-literate person should be able to analyze and process data; distinguish theory from dogma, data from myth, science from pseudo-science, evidence from propaganda, facts from fiction, sense from nonsense, and knowledge from opinion; recognize the cumulative, tentative, and skeptical nature of science; the need for sufficient evidence and established knowledge to support or reject claims; the environmental, social, political, and economic impact of science and technology; and the influence society has on science and technology. Shulman and Tamir (1973) proposed four cognitive goal clusters for science teaching: to facilitate scientific inquiry skills; to develop conceptual understanding and intellectual ability; to develop practical abilities in the laboratory (e.g., designing and executing investigations, observing and recording data and interpreting results); and to develop creative thinking and problem solving skills (Tamir, 1998).

However, as observed in practice, in the name of science teaching, schools teach students to memorize facts, train them in practicing fixed procedural skills, confine their observation of the world by highly structuring the laboratory and classroom environment.


To add to this, traditional assessment procedures – paper-pencil tests, year-end examinations reduce the entire teaching-learning process to retrieval of factual knowledge from students. Usually, assessment tasks are developed keeping in mind the partitioned view of science (Tamir, 1998); the very existence of separate theory and practical science examination reinforce the concept/process dichotomy. Research on science learning, for example, has shown that many pupils resist changing their everyday, often naïve views on how the natural world works despite being able to produce ‘correct’ science explanations in formal exams (Black 1999), hence, highlighting the major inadequacy of our formal examination system to assess the learners’ actual capabilities and understanding. To further illustrate the inadequacy of formal assessment in science, consider the following questions from a question paper administered on Class 8 students on the topic ‘Combustion’:
Q1. The minimum temperature at which a substance catches fire is called
a) spontaneous combustion
b) ignition temperature
c) photosynthesis
d) calorific value

Q2. A petrol fire cannot be controlled by __________
Q3. Name the hottest part of the flame.
Q4. State essential requirements for lighting a fire?
Q5. Define calorific value?
Q6. Define spontaneous combustion.
Q7. What is ignition temperature? Why does coal take longer than petrol to catch fire?

It can be easily said that questions 1 to 6 expect learners to simply recall and reproduce factual information. They are closed-ended, fixed response type questions which hardly assess learners’ conceptual understanding and problem solving abilities. Only question 7 involves a combination of recall and constructs an argument type of educational objective. Similarly, it is often observed that questions presented during formal examinations often provide insufficient direction to the learners. Take for instance a question like: ‘Name a substance having high calorific value’. In this question, ‘high’ is a relative concept. Any fuel that has a calorific value higher than another can be considered high. Clearly, with this form of examination in place, there exists a clear gap between valued goals of scientific literacy and outcomes in terms of students’ learning.

lab A constructivist approach to learning, instruction, and assessment has been proposed as an alternative to the objectivist and behaviorist approaches to education. Objectivism considers knowledge as fixed and external reality. This implies a process of “instruction,” where transmission of external reality to learners is the sole purpose, hence ensuring that the learners get correct information. On the other hand, constructivism assumes learning to be an active process of meaning making by the learners and not merely an act of transmission where students are viewed as recipients of information. It acknowledges the fact that students come to the classroom with prior knowledge structures which are built by the interplay of sensory experiences, the environment, and the mental structures of human brain (Driver et al., 1985). According to constructivist principles, assessment in science

  • should be placed in a meaningful context that is relevant or has emerging relevance to students;
  • should include higher order thinking skills, i.e., application, evaluation, analysis, synthesis;
  • enable students to go beyond initial information levels (knowledge and comprehension) through elaboration doing in-depth analysis of big ideas, issues, and concepts;
  • encourage them to solve problems in which they extend and re-conceptualize (accommodation) knowledge in new contexts;
  • help them generalize (synthesis) experiences from earlier concrete experiences to understand abstract theories and applications;
  • provide opportunities to exhibit knowledge through application (Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Zahorik, 1995).

Stern & Ahlgren (2002) suggest that assessment tasks in science should probe learners’ conceptual understanding and require application of ideas. Such tasks may involve

  • Rephrasing general proposition
    For example, could you explain in your own words, Law of conservation of energy?
  • Predict phenomena
    For example, Ramu was suffering from measles. Two of his brothers and his sister decided that their youngest brother Shyam should look after Ramu. There could have been two possible reasons to take that decision. Use clues given below to think of the two reasons:
    Clues: immune, infected by microbe, vaccination, public health program
    This item calls for prediction of phenomenon-causes of measles and how to avoid it-by reorganizing the clues.
  • Decide whether certain phenomena are instances of a generalization (or identify phenomena that could be explained by the generalization);
    For example, which of the following items will undergo addition reaction and why? C2H5, C3H8, C2H2, CH4
    This item calls for identification of phenomenon that could be ‘explained by a generalization’ and a clear understanding of the generalization, as in, what is addition reaction and in which particular cases will it take place.

Furthermore, it is crucial to provide authentic situations to learners so that we can ascertain their ability to transfer skills to real life situations. Tiknaz & Sutton (2006) point out that assessment tasks should be structured to move away from rudimentary (simple) concepts towards more sophisticated and complex ideas at later stages, i.e., in line with the learning progressions of the domain. Therefore, science assessment tasks need to reflect its dynamic nature. They should be constructed, administered, and assessed in a manner which is ‘true to child, true to life and true to science’ (NCERT, 2006).


  1. Black, P. (1999). Assessment, Learning Theories and Testing Systems. In P. Murphy (Ed.), Learners, Learning and Assessment (118-134). London: Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd.
  2. Brooks, J. G., & Brooks, M. G. (1993). In search of understanding: The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  3. Driver, R., & Guesne, E. & Tiberghin, A.(Eds.). (1985). Children’s Ideas in Science. Buckingham: Open University Press.
  4. NCERT. (2006). Position Paper on Teaching of Science. New Delhi: NCERT.
  5. Stern, L. & Ahlgren, A. (2002). Analysis of Students’ Material In Middle School Curriculum Materials: Aiming Precisely at Benchmarks and Standards. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39(9), 889-910.
  6. Tamir, P. (1998). Assessment and Evaluation in Science Education: Opportunities to Learn and Outcomes. In B. J. Fraser & K.G.Tobin (Eds.), International Handbook of Science Education (761-789). Great Britain: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  7. Tiknaz, Y. & Sutton, A. (2006). Exploring the role of assessment tasks to promote formative assessment in Key Stage 3 Geography: Evidence from twelve teachers. Assessment in Education: Policy,Principles and Practice, 13(3), 327-343.

The author is a Ph.D scholar at the Central Institute of Education, University of Delhi. She is pursuing her research in the area of “assessment in science” with specific focus on formative assessment practices. She can be contacted at