mending that states take a systems approach to science assessment, the committee means that assessment must be understood in terms of the ways it works within the education system and the ways in which the parts of the assessment system interact.

Systems have several key characteristics:

  • Systems are organized around a specific goal;

  • Systems are composed of subsystems, or parts, that each serve their own purposes but also interact with other parts in ways that help the larger system to function as intended;

  • The subsystems that comprise the whole must work well both independently and together for the system to function as intended;

  • The parts working together can perform functions that individual components cannot perform on their own; and

  • A missing or poorly operating part may cause a system to function poorly, or not at all.

Systems and subsystems interact so that changes in one element will necessarily lead to changes in others. Systems must work to strike a balance between stability and change, and they need to have well-developed feedback loops to keep the system from over- or underreacting to changes in a single element. Feedback loops occur whenever part of an output of some system is connected back to one of its inputs. For example, when teachers identify difficulties students are having with a concept and adjust their instructional strategies in response, which in turn causes students to approach the concept in a different way, a feedback loop has worked effectively. As we will discuss in Chapter 8, evaluation and monitoring—which are essentially assessment of the assessment system—provide another source of feedback that can shape the ways in which the assessment system functions within the education system.


The goal of a science education system is to provide all students with the opportunity to acquire the knowledge, understanding, and skills that they will need to become scientifically literate adults (science literacy is discussed further in Chapter 3). In a standards-based education system, the state goals are articulated in the standards. Thus, well-conceived standards are key if the science education system is to achieve its goals and we discuss the nature of high-quality standards in Chapter 4.

The science education system is part of a larger system of K–12 education and is, itself, comprised of multiple interacting systems. These other systems include science curriculum, which describes what students will be taught; science instruction, which specifies the conditions under which learning should take place; and

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