Currently I am working as a judge in the first ever Google Science Fair. This experience has lead me to reflect more on assessment and evaluation in my own classroom practice. It has given me one more avenue to consider when determining marks for my students’ report cards. In general this year, I have been guided by both my professional judgment and the document Growing Success Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools (2010) from the Ministry of Education. I have also had to consider how using the collaborative inquiry based Smarter Science framework has influenced the students’ approach to science.
A. Judging the Google Science Fair
Entrants to the Google Science Fair are given a very strict set of guidelines to follow when preparing their entry. The student uses the scientific method to design, research and perform a science experiment of their own choosing. They then enter all their information and findings online using a variety of Google tools. The end result is a well organized entry with tabs for the judge to click on when evaluating each component of the entry. In addition to a 2 minute video or a 20 slide presentation the tabs, or categories, are:
1. “About Me”,
2. “The Question”,
4. “Research and Works Cited”,
9. “Bibliography, References and Acknowledgments”.
The contest entry form clearly spells out what is expected in each of these categories in order for an entry to be judged as excellent. Furthermore, entrants are informed that the judges will score all eligible entries on the basis of their 2 minute video or 20 slide presentation, “About Me”, “The Question”, “Hypothesis”, and “Conclusion”. Only those who excel in these categories will go through to the next round of judging.
In effect what Google has done is spend a considerable amount of time determining what is expected from each contestant. The onus is on them to do the work and present it in the manner specified. The judges’ job is then very quick and easy. We are provided with a simple rubric to evaluate each of these categories. By simply clicking on the appropriate tab an experienced marker (ie. Teacher) can easily determine where the work would fall on the predetermined rubric. The appropriate numerical mark is then entered into a spreadsheet and the world of technology takes over crunching and averaging the numbers to determine who comes out at the top of the heap.
It is only those students who score highly in these five categories that make it on to the next round of judging! Thus, Google and the judges, have determined which entries are the best without even assessing the “Research and Works Cited”, Experiment”, “Data”, “Observations”, or “Bibliography, References and Acknowledgments”. Thinking as both a scientist and a teacher one can see how this makes sense – if the experiment is not set up with a suitable beginning (question and hypothesis) which leads to a logical ending (conclusion), it doesn’t really matter what happens in the middle. By spending our time making it clear to the student what criteria we are looking for and how they will be marked a teacher can cut down the time they spend marking.
By further extrapolation of this logic to the science classroom setting one can appreciate the importance of guiding the student while they are determining what they are going to test (question) and what they propose will happen (hypothesis). Over the years I have spent in the classroom I have frequently witnessed students who want to wait and make a hypothesis after their experiment is over! It is a very difficult concept for them to realize that disproving our own hypothesis is perfectly valid science and does not result in a failing grade!
B. Assessment and Evaluation using the document Growing Success Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools (2010)
This document instructs teachers in the province of Ontario ”to focus evaluation on students’ achievements of the overall expectation” of a course (page 38). In secondary school science we call these overall expectations the “big ideas”. They are all well defined and documented for us in a variety of Ministry documents. I would like to argue that all teachers base their entire curriculum on these big ideas and therefore evaluating based on them happens naturally. It would appear, however, that I am wrong and many teachers set their own agendas, even going as far as using marks as rewards or punishments for classroom behaviour, and other factors that have nothing to do with what a student has achieved in a course.
If you recognize yourself in the description expressed in the preceding paragraph I encourage you to reflect on your motivation. Bear in mind that teachers are educational professionals. Our primary role is to help the student learn. There are other avenues available for you to express your joy or disappointment in an individual’s behaviour. One avenue is the “learning skills” section of the provincial report card, but more powerful than that is a heart-to-heart talk with the student and possibly, a phone call home.