The lists of science topics included in state science standards, when viewed in this way, can conflict with other elements of state science standards that call for students to engage in laboratory experiences. For example, California state science standards for high school students include standards for investigation and experimentation (California State Board of Education, 2004). Modeled on the NSES inquiry standards for grades 9-12, the California standards call for students to develop questions and perform investigations, select and use appropriate tools, identify and communicate sources of error, identify possible reasons for inconsistent results, formulate explanations, solve scientific problems, distinguish between hypothesis and theory, and achieve other goals related to laboratory learning.
However, California state standards also require students to learn about many science topics, limiting the time they have available to engage in laboratory experiences that might help them attain the investigation and experimentation standards. When one school district official added up all the science topics to be covered in grades 8 through 10 and divided them by the number of school days, she found that the teachers would have only three days to introduce chemistry students to the methods used in calculating the quantities of reactants and products in a chemical reaction (Linn, 2004).
Current state science assessments are not well suited to assessing student attainment of the goals of laboratory experiences for two reasons. First, state assessments are not always fully aligned with state science standards (Lawrenz and Huffmann, 2002; Webb et al., 2001). Specifically state science assessments are not always aligned with those elements of state standards that call for laboratory experiences and for attainment of laboratory learning goals during the high school years.
Second, current state assessments emphasize mastery of a broad spectrum of science topics and do not measure progress toward such other goals as developing scientific reasoning, understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work, and developing practical skills. Many are primarily composed of selected-response (multiple-choice) tasks. Such assessments can test student knowledge of many items in a relatively short time, can be scored by computer, are relatively inexpensive, and provide a reliable (or consistent) view of student knowledge (National Research Council, 2002).
Although they are well suited to measuring mastery of science subject matter, current state science assessments may not be appropriate for measuring student attainment of the other goals of laboratories (e.g., scientific reasoning, understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work, and understanding of the nature of science). A recent study of three science exams, which are used widely in many states and consist entirely of selected