The National Science Education Standards point out that “assessments provide an operational definition of standards, in that they define in measurable terms what teachers should teach and students should learn” (NRC, 1996, pp. 5-6). In the context of inquiry, assessments therefore need to gauge the progress of students in achieving the three major learning outcomes of inquiry-based science teaching: conceptual understandings in science, abilities to perform scientific inquiry, and understandings about inquiry.
Just as these objectives differ from those of other approaches to science education, so assessments of inquiry-based science education differ from more traditional assessments. Conventional multiple-choice or short-answer questions typically ask students to identify facts, concepts, or vocabulary. Such tests have proven too broad in their coverage, too shallow in the depth of reasoning required, and too narrow when it comes to measuring outcomes like “understanding the nature of science and the work of scientists.” These tests are more likely to require recognition and recall rather than in-depth reasoning and application of underlying concepts. As such, they can pose a serious obstacle to inquiry-based science teaching. Teachers are less likely to focus on the goals of inquiry if their students’ performance is evaluated on district or state-wide tests that assess isolated facts (Neill and Medina, 1989). Furthermore, when large-scale external examinations take these forms, teachers tend to create similar assessments for their classes (Raizen and Kaser, 1989; Baron, 1990).
Assessment in inquiry-based classrooms takes a broader perspective on the rich learning called for by the Standards. It asks what each student knows and understands, what is fuzzy or missing, and what students can do with what they know. Assessment determines whether students can generate or clarify questions,