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Testing for Depth in Science

A recent study, which I wrote about last week, makes the case for building students' depth of knowledge in science—as opposed to focusing on "breadth," a long list of topics across the subject.

But in the era of high-stakes tests, how do you test for depth? It's not easy. Many states and schools, at the urging of science advocates and others, believe exams should be broad enough to cover a lot of topics in science, as my story explains.

It's fine if you want to pare down the list, those advocates seem to be saying—just don't jettison the particular science topic we care about the most.

Another factor that favors testing "breadth": Multiple-choice tests are typically cheaper and easier to administer, as opposed to trying to trying to gauge students' knowledge through constructed-response, or adaptive testing, or what have you.

Yet despite those odds, there are efforts to test deep science knowledge. In my story I discussed efforts by the College Board to revamp its AP science tests to probe fewer subjects with greater intensity. The College Board had been criticized for promoting an overly broad approach on its exams.

Movement on that front is also occurring with the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP science test.

I didn't have room to get into this in my story this week, but that NAEP test, which has been given in the nation's schools over the past couple weeks, includes an interactive computer feature, administered to a subset of students. The goal of that portion of the test is to measure student science knowledge that cannot easily be assessed on paper, such as the ability to formulate and and perform experiments.

That process allows students to make choices based on data during experiments, officials at the Educational Testing Service, which is helping with the NAEP science exam, told me. This, in turn, allows for a better measure depth of knowledge.

If this approach takes hold, it's possible that the science test of the future will look much different than what's being used across the country today.

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