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Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Eduacational Assessment
oped a simple framework, a content-process space that depicts tasks’ demands for content knowledge as lying on a continuum from rich to lean. At one extreme are knowledge-rich tasks that require in-depth understanding of subject matter topics; at the other extreme are tasks that depend not on prior knowledge or experience but on information given in the assessment situation. Similarly, tasks’ demands for process skills are arrayed on a continuum from constrained to open. Assessment tasks can involve many possible combinations of content knowledge and process skills. Analyzing a diverse range of science assessments from state and district testing programs, Baxter and Glaser found matches and mismatches between the intentions of test developers and what the tasks actually measured, and varying degrees of correspondence between observed cognitive activity and performance scores. Box 5–8 provides an example of a concept mapping task that was found to overestimate quality of understanding.
In another study, Hamilton et al. (1997) investigated the usefulness of small-scale interview studies as a means of exploring the validity of both multiple-choice and performance-based science achievement tests. Interviews illuminated unanticipated cognitive processes used by test takers. One finding was the importance of distinguishing between the demands of open-ended tasks and the opportunities such tasks provide students. Some open-ended tasks enabled students to reason scientifically but did not explicitly require them to do so. If a task did not explicitly require scientific reasoning, students often chose to construct answers using everyday concepts and language. More-structured multiple-choice items, in contrast, did not offer students this choice and forced them to attend to the scientific principles. Clarifying the directions and stems of the open-ended tasks helped resolve these ambiguities.
Though the research studies described above analyzed tasks after they had already been administered as part of a large-scale assessment, the researchers concluded that cognitive task analysis should not be an after-thought, done only to make sense of the data after the test has been developed and administered to large numbers of students. Rather, such analyses should be an integral part of the test development process to ensure that instructions are clear and that tasks and associated scoring rubrics are functioning as intended. Some developers of large-scale assessments are beginning to heed this advice. For example, as part of the development of the Voluntary National Test, the contractor, American Institutes for Research, used cognitive laboratories to gauge whether students were responding to the items in ways the developers intended. The laboratories were intended to improve the quality of the items in two ways: by providing specific information about items, and by making it possible to generalize the findings to evaluate the quality of other items not tried out in the laboratories (NRC, 1999a).