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Systems for State Science Assessment
for example. The authors of the National Science Education Standards made clear their commitment to this goal by advocating that the collection of data about students’ opportunity to learn should be included in a science assessment program. NCLB reflects this goal and mandates the interpretation of test-based information in ways that may highlight discrepancies in opportunity to learn among different groups of students, schools, and school districts in a state.
Science education poses particular challenges in meeting the goal of opportunity to learn. Of primary concern is the scarcity of highly qualified science teachers (see for example, National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, 2000). While NCLB requires that every child have access to highly qualified teachers, there may not be sufficient numbers of these teachers to staff all science classrooms. This is particularly true in rural and urban settings and in the elementary and middle grades, where many teachers are generalists, rather than science specialists. The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Center for Education Statistics have collected detailed information on the staffing patterns in different schools and subjects that support the committee’s observation. (This information is available on the organizations’ web sites.)
The fairness of assessments and the validity of interpretations of their results depend on the extent to which students have had sufficient opportunities to learn the knowledge and abilities that are being assessed. Without this information, it is impossible to know whether the results shed light on aspects of the curriculum, instructional strategies, or students’ efforts or abilities, or whether they simply indicate that students have not had the chance to learn what has been assessed.
It is particularly important that in interpreting test results, states consider the extent to which students with disabilities and English language learners have had an opportunity to learn the material covered by a science assessment, because instruction in special programs may focus on reading and mathematics rather than science. When students are tested on material that they have not had an opportunity to learn, the test results cannot be interpreted as meaning the same thing as for students who have received instruction in the area.
States have a number of sources of evidence they can use to answer questions about students’ opportunity to learn. Collateral information about individual students or groups of students is particularly important when the stakes for individual students are high, as when assessments are used for promotion and graduation, for example. This information can be obtained through questionnaires that ask, for example, whether students were provided with curriculum, instruction, and resources, or whether educators, students, and parents were informed before an assessment was conducted about the knowledge, skills, and abilities that were to be assessed (American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, and National Council on Measurement in Education, 1999). Research has suggested that the primary areas that should be considered when examining opportunities to learn are curriculum content, instructional strategies, and instructional resources (Brewer and Stacz, 1996).