Assessment in an Inquiry Classroom

Definition      Paradigms       Purpose        Current Practices       Emerging Approaches      Resources

Definition  -  What is Assessment?

A test is a mode of measurement, or may be thought of  “as any standardized procedure for eliciting the kind of behavior we want to observe and measure” (Frederiksen, 1984). Measurement is the assigning of numbers to the test results. The measurement data are used to make inferences about student achievement, relating the scores to the purpose of the test.  The assessment lies in the interpretation of the inferences, combined with informal observations, to make an evaluative statement, in other words, a value judgement about a student's learning. Assessment is often used as a general term for a variety of procedures use to obtain information about student performance, including tradional paper-and-pencil tests and alternative approaches that are introduced in the Current Practices section.

Traditional assessments rely on “paper-and-pencil” or “on-demand” tests that are composed primarily of objective, selected-response items.  Alternative assessment is a basic term that can be generally defined as any alternative to traditional assessment; “alternative forms of assessment give greater emphasis to the quality of answer content and process in interpreting results of assessment tasks” (Harnisch & Mabry, 1993).  Alternative assessments are inherently more personalized assessments.  Alternative assessment methods blend well with learner-centered pedagogies, such as inquiry-based.  Some specific definitions of types of alternative assessments:

What these over-arching terms have in common is the requirement for constructed-response rather than selected-response items.   There are a variety of types of constructed responses that have the benefits of allowing the learner the opportunity to show what they know and possibly pursue in-depth a topic of interest to the learner, and they will be discussed more in depth in the Current Practices section .


Paradigms - How are assessment practices judged as appropriate?

Psychometrics involves the measurement of intelligence, aptitude, and achievement.  The primary method for this kind of measurement is the standardized multiple-choice test. In the psychometric paradigm, the basic strategy for understanding student achievement is comparison.  A student's performance is compared either to a predetermined standard for to the performances of other test takers.  In a norm-referenced test, a student's performance is typically quantified as a score and compared with the scores of others presumed to be his/her peers.  Scores are ranked ordered.  A student's achievement is determined by his/her rank. In a criterion-referenced test, a student's performance is compared to a predetermined criterion or standard. criteria and standards tend to be set according to judgment of typical or satisfactory performance, which blurs the distinction between the two aforementioned types of tests.  Therefore in the psychometric paradigm, assessments are based on "on-demand" tests often containing selected response items, such as multiple-choice, and standardized content, format, and administration.

Within an inquiry classroom assessment within this paradigm may take the shape of an "add-on". In other words, after an inquiry activity students may feel that their new knowledge is not valued when the assessment of their acheivement takes the shape of a test that based on textbook rote information that only utilizes lower-order thinking skills

More appropriately, educators in an inquiry classroom should assess based on what curricula students have experienced and take into account students' unequal learning opportunites. Contextualized assessments are designed to reveal what students have actually learned through opportunites for students to demonstrate and to reflect on their complex knowledge and skills. In addition, inquiry activities often take on the individual imupulses of the learners. A personalized approach to assessing student achievement better aligned with constructivist learning theory and individualized education because it assumes that everyone -

- understands the same things in different ways;
- holds different interests and goals;
- responds in different ways, for example, some are better at oral than at written expression;
- thinks at their own rate, so some people need more time to think things through (or need other differences in conditions) thanothers.

Therefore, tests should -

 - have personalized content;
- assess achievements that will reveal students' readiness to accomplish their own goals;
- allow students to perform in ways that afford them the best chance to show what they know;
- allow different conditions and amounts of time so test-takers can demonstrate what they know.

In short, human beings are different and construct their own understandings. Inquiry learning and other learner-centered pedagogies embrace this constructivist philosphy and personalized assesment follows.


Purpose - What is the purpose of assessment?

Assessment purpose can be explained in terms of its functional role in the classroom. Some categories of assessment purpose in the order that they are likely to be used are as follows:

  1. Placement assessment: To determine student performance at the beginning of instruction.
  2. Formative assessment: To monitor learning progressed during instruction.
  3. Diagnostic assessment: To diagnose learning difficulties during instruction.
  4. Summative assessment: To assess achievements at the end of instruction.

The purpose of assessment ideally is to provide feedback about what knowledge and abilities students possess, in order to make appropriate instructional decisions and improve student learning.  It attempts to answer to questions: "how are we doing?" and "how can we do it better?" 


  Current Practices - How can we assess in an inquiry classroom?

There are a variety of types of constructed responses that have the benefits of allowing the learner the opportunity to show what they know and possibly pursue in-depth a topic of interest to the learner, and they have the limitation that they are not necessarily reliable nor valid when analyzed using traditional psychometric definitions.


Anecodotal Notes

Think Aloud Protocols



 Emerging Approaches - What new assessment practices are being investigated?

Inquiry Page - Inquiry Units

StoneSoup - Portfolio Units

Some attributes of Units:

Units are available to teachers whenever they are needed. The uniform information structure of the Unit makes them easy to review.

The Unit becomes a portfolio of the student’s work throughout her/his inquiry.  The Unit is an electronic information structure that is learner-centered, real-life contextualized, and tells a meaningful story of the student’s learning.  This assessment is embedded in the individual student activity and production of the Inquiry Unit, making assessment a reflective and on-going process.   The validity of the Inquiry Unit lies in the assessment of what students know through the students’ own writings, discussions, presentations, and linkages to national/state standards.  Valid inferences of a student’s achievement are enhanced by focus on the individual; therefore, a shift towards more personalized assessment is necessary.


Latent Semantic Analysis

Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA) captures the essential relationships between text documents and word meaning, or semantics, the knowledge base which must be accessed to evaluate the quality of content. Several educational applications that employ LSA have been developed: (1) selecting the most appropriate text for learners with variable levels of background knowledge, (2) automatically scoring the content of an essay, and (3) helping students effectively summarize material.
A demonstration of using LSA in essay scoring is also available using the Intelligent Essay Assessor To assess the quality of essays, LSA is first trained on domain-representative text. Then student essays are characterized by LSA vectors of their contained words and compared with essays of known quality on degree of conceptual relevance and amount of relevant content.


Resources - Where can additional information be found on assessment in an inquiry classroom?

World Wide Web

Facilitating reflection: A Manual for Leaders and Educators - "Reflection" is a vital component of service-learning. This manual was designed for educators and leaders of service groups who have an interest and a commitment to provide reflection opportunities for students and community partners alike. College professors, K-12 teachers, community organization leaders, and leaders of service organizations have all found, "Facilitating Reflection: A Manual for Leaders and Educators," a useful supplement to their work. _ From the John Dewey Project on Progressive Education at the College of Education and Social Services at the University of Vermont

Chapter 11: Assessment in the Inquiry Classroom by Wynne Harlen in Inquiry: Thoughts, Views and Strategies for the K-5 Classroom Vol. 2, and Chapter 12: Assessment of Science Inquiry by George E. Hein and Sabra Lee

Eisenhower National Clearinghouse (ENC) section on Assessment including Classroom Assessment, Framing the Context, Aligning the Assessment with the Context, Alternative Assessment, TIMSS, Standardized Testing, and Selected Resources from the ENC collection.

Books & Journal Articles

Darling-Hammond, L., Ancess, J., & Falk, B. (1995). Authentic assessment in action: Studies of schools and students at work. New York: Teachers College.

Frederiksen, N. (1984). The real test bias: Influences of testing on teaching and learning. American Psychologist, 39(3), pp.193-202.

Harnisch, D.L. & Mabry, L. (1993). Issues in the development and evaluation of alternative assessments. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 25(2), pp.179-187.

Linn, R.L., Baker, E.L., & Dunbar, S.B. (1991). Complex, performance-based assessment: expectations and validation criteria. Educational Researcher, 29(8), pp.15-21.

Mabry, L. (1999). Portfolios plus: A critical guide to alternative assessment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin


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