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Out-of-School Science Needs Better Assessments

Out-of-school-time environments are not only good opportunities to provide hands-on science instruction, but to establish more defined and consistent assessments of new methods of science learning, says a new report.

According to "Game-Changers and the Assessment Predicament in Afterschool Science," both the practices for teaching science in OST programs and the assessments used to evaluate the instruction are variable and need improvement.

"The after-school field faces an assessment predicament: If it does not establish some indicators and tools of its own, it will increasingly be forced to measure itself by state and national test outcomes, which are mismatched with the philosophy and goals of many informal science experiences in OST," the report's authors write.

The future of assessment in out-of-school science can and should change, it says, citing four "game-changers" that are guiding and influencing the after-school field on integrating science instruction into programs.

The game changers, in summary:
- After-school programs are increasingly expected to provide hands-on science learning as schools have reduced classroom science instruction.
- There is growing consensus that students learn science best through hands-on instruction and exploration.
- After-school programs are increasingly using community resources such as zoos or gardens to enhance offerings.
- After-school programs, like schools, are facing added pressure to assess and evaluate student learning.

Given that out-of-school environments have more freedom to use outside resources and are less inhibited by time constraints like the school day, these programs have great opportunity to integrate high-quality science instruction into curricula, it says. Yet since the instruction is different, so to should be measurement and evaluation of it.

The authors urge the out-of-school community to work together to craft common assessments for out-of-school science learning by building on existing work on assessments and improving them, using such data as surveys and observations to make instruction (and the programs themselves) stronger. Programs should examine what teaching styles seem to work best to foster student interest in the subject, what interactions occur between students and teachers during science instruction, and what resources seem to enrich the learning experiences the most.

The report was built on the discussions and findings from a summit last year, supported by several major foundations and the Board of Science Education at the National Research Council and the Program in Educational, Afterschool, and Resiliency (PEAR) at Harvard University (publisher of the report).

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