excessive leads to low reliability (see Chapter 4). For inferences concerning overall proficiency in this sense, tasks that do not rank individuals in the same order are less informative than ones that do.
Such interactions between tasks and prior knowledge are fully expected from modern perspectives on learning, however, since it is now known that knowledge typically develops first in context, then is extended and decontextualized so it can be applied more broadly to other contexts. An indepth project that dovetails with students’ prior knowledge provides solid information, but becomes a waste of time for students for whom this connection is lacking. The same task can therefore reveal either vital evidence or little at all, depending on the target of inference and the relationship of the information involved to what is known from other sources.
Current approaches to assessment, particularly large-scale testing, rely on unconditional interpretation of student responses. This means that evaluation or interpretation of student responses does not depend on any other information the evaluator might have about the background of the examinee. This approach works reasonably well when there is little unique interaction between students and tasks (less likely for assessments connected with instruction than for those external to the classroom) or when enough tasks can be administered to average over the interactions (thus the SAT has 200 items). The disadvantage of unconditional scoring is that it precludes saying different things about a student’s performance in light of other information that might be known about the student’s instructional history.
An alternative way to interpret evidence from students’ responses to tasks is referred to as conditional interpretation. Here the observer or scorer has additional background information about the student that affects the interpretation. This can be accomplished in one of three ways, each of which is illustrated using the example of all assessment of students’ understanding of control of variables in scientific experimentation (Chen and Klahr, 1999).
In their study, Chen and Klahr (1999) exposed children to three levels of training in how to design simple unconfounded experiments. One group received explicit training and repeated probe questions. Another group received only probe questions and no direct training. Finally, the third group served as a control: they received equal exposure to the materials, but no instruction at all. Three different kinds of materials were used for subgroups of children in each training condition. Some children were initially exposed to ramps and balls, other to springs and weights, and still other to sinking objects.
Children in each training condition were subsequently assessed on how