Inquiry includes examining what is already known in order to effectively plan, conduct, and interpret the results of investigations in specific content areas.
It will not be possible to achieve the goal of this kind of scientific literacy for all—or even most—students without the use of assessments of scientific inquiry. Inquiry assessments are needed within classrooms to help teachers diagnose the nature of their students' understanding and to give students feedback about their performance. Science inquiry assessments are needed within the research and evaluation community to make it possible to compare the efficacy of alternative approaches to supporting science learning. Within accountability systems, science inquiry assessments are needed if teachers and systems are to be held accountable for the NRC standards, but more than that, if we are to avoid sending the wrong message to teachers, students, and parents about what it means to “learn science.”
Despite the central importance of inquiry, both as a means for students to acquire a deep understanding of science and as a complex set of interrelated knowledge and processes which in and of themselves are targets of instruction, inquiry is the aspect of science that is least likely to be adequately assessed in large-scale accountability systems. Conventional assessment approaches are quite capable of measuring content knowledge and some of the process skills related to science inquiry (e.g., recognizing confounded variables) in a decontextualized manner. They are ill-suited, however, to capturing multifaceted inquiry processes in meaningful contexts. The conduct of complex, hands-on inquiry is missing from most state, national, and international assessments as well as standardized science achievement tests developed by commercial publishers. Instead, standardized assessments typically emphasize decontextualized factual knowledge (Quellmalz & Haertel, in press). Even when performance or hands-on tasks are administered on a broad scale, their structure and length, and the demand for coverage of a broad range of science content, significantly limit the aspects of inquiry that can be elicited (cf. Baxter & Glaser, 1998).
While classroom assessment practices do not have to conform to the time limits that constrain externally imposed standardized tests, many teachers mimic the format and focus of standardized tests when they are creating assessment tools for classroom use (NRC, 2001a). As a result, even teachers who incorporate extensive inquiry-oriented investigations in their science teaching often score the inquiry work mainly on the basis of “participation” or “completion” and base class grades on conventional tests of factual knowledge from the textbook (Young, Haertel, Ringstaff, & Means, 1998). When classroom assessments do not reflect adequately the engagement required to pursue a line of inquiry or solve a complex problem, the assessment activities are often perceived as dull and disconnected from the hands-on activities (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1992).
The NRC report How People Learn (1999) makes the point that technology can be used to help teachers understand student thinking and provide meaningful, timely feedback. Nowhere is there greater need and potential for this kind of contribution than in the area of science inquiry