Exploring the impact of a large-scale diagnostic science test and formative practices : a mixed-methods study

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Researchers working with schools in the UK and elsewhere are finding that explicitly teaching students the “five strategies of formative assessment” (Black and Wiliam, 2009, p. 8) is helping to re-engage students with science. This thesis presents findings about the impact of two major interventions on the assessment-related work of junior secondary science teachers in the New South Wales government school system (the largest in Australia) and on student science results. The first intervention took the form of advice to teachers about formative assessment in the official science curriculum (introduced in 2003), where it is called assessment for learning. The second took the form of a mandatory low-stakes, large-scale, test-based diagnostic assessment program involving Year 8 students. This program was fully implemented across NSW from 2007. The assessment framework used to inform the development of test items and tasks and that informs the comprehensive feedback provided to students, parents and teachers is underpinned by Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome (SOLO) theory. Three research questions guided data collection. The research design employed mixed methods, including both quantitative and qualitative methods as well as case studies involving sixteen purposively chosen school sites. Descriptive and inferential statistics were applied to the analysis of both state-wide and school-specific, teacher-provided survey data about their practices and school-level test results. An interpretive approach was used to generate assessment-related work narratives from audio-recorded interviews and artefacts of assessment practice provided to the researcher by volunteering science teachers in the case study schools. The findings show that teacher use of three of five dimensions of formative practice and an explicit focus on teaching students the skills of writing to learn science produced science test results that were above expectation. Less certain was the hoped-for finding that students were also acquiring the skills of learning how to learn. An unexpected finding was that students in regional schools where science results were well above expectation were less positive about their school science experience than their metropolitan counterparts.
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