Alternative approaches to the assessment of science process skills

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K.O.Oloruntegbe (Ph.D)

Science and Technical Eduction,

Adekunle Ajasin Universitry,



Assessment means many things to many people. It is a hot issue to teachers and learners alike- to both, it is desirable and detestable. To authors, scholars and curricularissts, there is plethora of terms and definitions. To measure science learning outcomes at skills level, assessment was modified and restructured not only in form and context, but in vocabularies and nomenclatures. Thus there emerged different forms like alternative, authentic and performance assessments, which are labeled the most suitable for assessing science process skills demonstrated and developed by students during science activities. The author of this paper took a critical look at these various forms and found them not being strong enough for that purpose. What is demanded from the students and teachers in them differ not much from those of the conventional paper and pencil types. Or at best it is the product of investigation written on paper and marked by conference

examiners. The disadvantages of this conventional practice are much. The author is therefore advocating on-the-spot assessment of skills as complements and supplements to these others. The advantages are overwhelming and are stated in the body of the paper.


The term assessment presents different perceptions and conceptions. To authors, scholars and curricularissts, there is a plethora of terms and definitions (Butler 1997, Lake, Harmes, Guill and Crist 1998); to the teachers and the learners, it is a hot issue (Oguntonade 1997) and to the general public, it is desirable as well as detestable. The many vocabularies or terms used starting from those in the title of this paper include the following; alternative assessment authentic assessment, performance assessment, traditional or conventional type, naturalistic assessment, process assessment, product process assessment, benchmark, criteria, documentation, graphic organizer, indicators, outcome, portfolio, rubric, standard etc (Lake et al 1998).

The term assessment itself is derived from a Latin word meaning “to sit beside, assist in the office of a judge”. In history it was applied and involved in apprenticeship. Just as H. Geiger and E. Marsden were apprenticed to E. Rutherford or Apostle Paul to Gamaliel. And even now it is applicable among the artisans-automobile repairers and had extended to the normal school settings and practices.

Assessment, particularly in traditional type (the first known one) is grounded in educational philosophy that adopts the following reasoning and practice

  • the goal or mission of the school e.g. maybe to produce productive citizens;

  • to be a productive citizen, an individual must possess a certain body of knowledge and skills;

  • The school must teach the body of knowledge and skills; and

  • The school must also test students to see if the goal is accomplished- if the students had acquired the knowledge and skills. (Mueller 2006)

It is also driven by school curriculum developed, implemented, and assessed to determine the acquisition of the learning outcome based on the curriculum package. Assessment can be described as an offshoot of Tyler rationale of means and end.

Some of these terms except in the mind of heavy-duty researchers overlap. Alternative, authentic and performance are used interchangeably to mean the same thing. Traditional test means paper and pencil test – the multiple objectives and essay type also describe as “proxy items” (Grants 1990, Oloruntegbe and Omoifo 2000).

The characterization and categorization fall into a continuum.
Traditional authentic
Events at the two ends of the continuum range from selection of response to performing a task; from contrived to real life, recall or recognition to construction and application, teachers-structured to learners structured and indirect evidence to direct evidence (Grants 1990 and Mueller 2006). Within the continuum lies four categories; tests, product or project assessment, performance assessment and process skills assessment (CES National 2002). These are in turn comprised of many other forms as noted by Lake et al (1998). All types are useful, however, each has limitations. Therefore maintaining a balance becomes of utmost importance.

The assessment data is generally of two types, - qualitative and quantitative which are respectively based or derived from detailed description of situation of performance and using values from an instrument-based standardized system. The formal can be much more subjective but can also be much more valuable in the hands of experienced teachers.

The purposes are learners, teachers, administrators and employers related (Lake et al 1998, Oloruntegbe 2000, Wiggins 2005). For learners it provides efficient learning by focusing the students attention on what is important, promotes retention and transfer of learning; promotes self-evaluation and self monitoring by the use of well-defined expectations and criteria; motivates learning by communicating progress concerning what a student know or is able to do and shows evidence of work that can be used to get job, scholarships and entrance to the next stage of schooling. For the teachers it provides formative and summative data about student learning and attainment specifically competency gain; provides diagnostic data to improve learning; assists instructional planning by providing informed feedback, helps to determine effectiveness of approaches and methods, entails programme accountability and it is a tool to communicate to other.

Allocation of resources, decision making in terms of recruitment of employee and professional development needs are the interest area of administrators. The employers too need data, about what a prospective employee knows and is able to do, and evidence of learning by employees.

Everyone has an interest in conducting assessment. As an integral part of instruction at all levels of educational system assessment answers such questions as:

  • are we doing what we think we are doing?

  • How can we do it better? (Crist et al 1998)

- When do we do it?

More focused questions can be raised here,

  • Are teachers truly measuring students’ capabilities in all areas of cognitive, psychomotor and effective?

  • Are teachers not measuring capabilities in the cognitive areas when they mean to measure skills?

  • Are teachers employing the right instrument in assessing?

  • Is the evaluation information provided on school graduate to the general public-employers reliable?

  • Why are employers and institutions of learning home and abroad getting increasingly skeptical of Nigerian school products?

  • Why are there prevalence of malpractices and irregularities in private and public examinations or internal and external examination?

Answers to some of these questions are provided later in this paper. One can now see why assessment does not only mean many things to different people, it is also a trouble shooter- many need and use it, few love it and some others hate it.

Alternatives, Authentic and Performance Assessments, What are they?

Assessment is changing for many reasons. Changes in the skills and knowledge needed for success; in understanding of how students learn; and in relationship between assessment and instruction necessitates change in assessment strategies. The assessment strategies should be tied to the design, content, new outcomes and purposes. Of the science learning outcomes-formulation of concepts, development of skills and appropriate scientific attitudes, cognitive area seems to attracts more attention in school teaching, learning and assessment. Teachers seldom teach and assess skills and attitudes (Oloruntegbe, 2000 and Oloruntegbe & Omoifo, 2000). Educators, policy makers and parents are beginning to recognize that minimums and basics are no longer sufficient (Winking & Bond 1995) and are calling for a closer match between the skills that students learn in schools and the skills they will need upon leaving school. The situation whereby little or no skills are developed has also attracted a barrage of criticisms.

Attempts to assess skills led to changing faces, nomenclature and movements in assessment. There emerged Education Performance Assessment Advisory Committee in many universities particularly in USA; National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) also in USA; First International Science Study (FISS); Assessment Performance Unit in United Kingdom, and several other assessment bodies. Several terminologies were also coined such as alternative assessment, authentic assessment, performance assessment, project-based assessment and many others. The goals of these assessments were to provide quantitative data on students’ performance particularly in science. A few of these forms of alternative assessments are examined here.

Authentic Assessment

This is a form of assessment in which students are asked to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills. There are other definitions

Engaging and worthy problem of question of importance in which students must use knowledge to fashion performances, effectively and creatively. The tasks are either replicas of or analogous to the kinds of problems faced by adult citizens and consumers or professionals in the field (Wiggins 1993)

“The assessments call upon the examinee to demonstrate specific skills and competencies, that is , to apply the skills and knowledge they have mastered (Stinggins 1987).

Authentic assessment engages students in applying knowledge and skills in the same way they are used in the “real world” outside school. It is performance-based assessment that requires a student to go beyond basic recall and demonstrate significant, worthwhile knowledge and understanding through a product, performance or exhibition. The assessment comprises an authentic task such as participating in politically oriented debates, writing for the school newspaper, conduct a research group meeting or perform scientific research. Students appear to learn best when they see the importance for learning and when the learning environment is familiar to them. Authentic scenarios can provide this environment and relevance to students.

Performance Assessments

Performance assessment, also known as alternative or authentic assessment (US Ed Dept 1993) is a form of testing that requires students to perform a task rather than select an answer from a ready-made list. For example a student may be asked to generate scientific hypothesis, solve mathematics problems, converse in foreign language or conduct research on an assign topic (US Education Depatnent 1993). The modes include: open-ended or extended response exercise; extended tasks; and port folios (US Education Department 1993) teacher observation and questioning-further categorized as constructed responses, products and performances (HYPERLINK “http// junction/index.html”), candidates proficiencies (SMSU 2004) essays, oral presentations, open-ended problems hands-on problem, real world simulation and other authentic tasks (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory 1995). Advocates said that performance assessment may be a more valued indicator of what students know and what he is able to do (knowledge & abilities) promotes active learning and curricular-based testing, (Shavelson, Baxter & Pine 1991, suggests changes in instructional practice to support effective learning in science, (Baxter, Elder and Glaxer 1996) but requires a greater expense of time, planning and thought from students and teachers, users also need to pay close attention to technical and equity issues to ensure that the assessments are fair to all students.

Alternative Assessment

Alternative assessment includes any assessment in which students create response to a question-short answer and essay. Musical recitals, theme papers, drama performance, students’ posters, art projects and models are other examples and mode (Florida DOE 1996)

It appears that the differences in these various forms of assessment is only in the vocabulary and nomenclature. What is demanded from students and teacher seems not to differ much. An example from a chemistry class might be useful.


An acid

  1. turns red paper into blue

  2. releases hydroxide ions in solution

  3. tastes sour

  4. feels slippery

The correct answer is C


Differentiate between an acid and a base


Your mother took lime ENO last night for acid indigestion, why? Trace the lime ENO through her

system describing the correct chemical reactions

(South Easte Region vision for Education 1998)


Take 2cm3 of each of solutions A&B in separate test tubes. Add to each a drop of litmus solution, write down your observation and make inferences (WAEC derived)

In all these examples, the traditional type stands out. It requires the selection of response from given options. This type i.e. objectively score types of question according to Okebukola (2002) do offer objectivity of scoring but are woefully inadequate in assessing students beliefs and in not being intellectually tasking. The others though differ in the level of intellectual demands but students’ responses are still written on paper and scored or marked by internal assessors or examiners located outside the schools of the students as the case is in West African Examination Council, National Examination Council and National Board for Technical Education. What is assessed in one word, is the product of investigation as written down on paper by students. Students could perform tasks correctly and have difficulties in reporting correctly Students could copy others and pass without performing any task. There are other bandwagon effects like examination malpractices and false certification. For this and other shortcomings, these types of assessments are open to the same flaws and criticisms as the traditional paper and pencil type.

Reconceptualist view and option – On-the-Spot and Products of investigation

From the ongoing, there is a need for an on-the-spot assessment of skill demonstrated by students. The reconceptualist view and the option is that the much “-orchestrated” alternative, authentic and performance-based assessments are not strong enough to assess all the skills (science and technological) demonstrated during science activities. There is the need to evolve a more sensitive and imagination technique to measure science learning outcomes at skill level. The author is advocating for an on-the-spot assessment of skills especially those skills that cannot directly be assessed through students written report of, or products, of investigation. See table below.

Table 1

Science and technological skills and appropriate mode of assessment

Product of Investigation

On-the-spot assessment










Selecting appropriate measuring instrument

Estimating volume and mass



Isolating and controlling variables


Examples of skills assessment of a topic in Junior Secondary II & III Integrated science will make this point clear.

Topic: further investigation of air


Skills covered

Mode of assessment

Product of on-the-spot

Investigation assessment


Light a candle stick provided and cover with a gas jar, measure the time it takes for the candle flame to go out

Ability to

-perform task correctly
-measure time correctly

-correct performance

-correct measurement



Take 2 candle sticks of equal length, light them, cover them separately with 2 similar gas jars, take the time it takes for the flame to go out, record the observation and make inference

Ability to

-control variable

-perform the task

-measure time correctly

-observe correctly

-infer correctly

-correct inference

-Controlling variable

-correct performance

-correct measurement

-correct observation


Marking scheme

Again select two candle sticks of the same length, light the two at the same time, cover them separately with gas jars of different volumes, report your observation and make interpretation

Ability to

-isolate and control variable

-select gas jar of different volumes

-perform task correctly

-measure time correctly
-observe correctly

-interpret correctly

-report correctly

-correct observation

-correct interpretation

-correct reporting

-isolating & controlling variable

-choosing appropriate apparatus

-correct performance

-correct measurement
-correct observation





Marking scheme

Marking scheme

Marking scheme

Calibrate a gas jar to 100 parts

Ability to

-perform correctly

-measure correctly

-correct performance

-correct estimation



With the trough of water, calibrated jar, wood block and candlestick provided, design and perform experiment to estimate the volume of air that support burning, Report your observation and inference.

Ability to



-observe correctly

-infer correctly and record correctly

-correct observation

-correct inference and reporting

-correct hypothesizing

-correct experimenting

-correct observation


Marking scheme

Key: Checklist

Task performance Score

Ability to perform task correctly without assistant 3 marks

Ability to perform with minor assistance 2 marks

Ability to perform with major assistance 1 marks

Not able to perform at all 0

Oloruntegbe and Omoifo (1999), Oloruntegbe (2000) and Oloruntegbe and Omoifo (2000), reported the practicability, suitability and prospect of this type of assessment across variables of gender, ability level and age of students. The major problems and teachers complains as observed by Baxter et al (1996) are the great cost in terms of time, effort in planning and materials. Education Consumer Guide (1993) remarked that something of worth comes at a price. To O’Neale et al (1998), laboratory work is an expensive activity- building, equipping, training of assessors and technicians. However, the advantages are overwhelming.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The worth of school graduate is a product of good teaching and assessing. Superficial effort in this regard will only breed deception and defects- students parading high grades from theory and the conventional practical examination without the corresponding skill to go with them. The advantages of on-the-spot assessment as complement or supplement of the conventional type are many and overwhelming. It promotes balance teaching and assessing. It can signal curriculum reform. It will also make the certificate issued in our school to be of worth and pride. If the school system and education sectors can pay the price, and if the teachers and the students are ready to adjust on-the-spot assessment of skills in addition to assessing products of investigation in science will enhance the prestige of the system and create a paradigm shift in our science and technological aspirations.


Baxter, G.P; Elder, A.D & Glaser, R. (1996), Knowledge-based Cognition and Performance Assessment in the Science Classroom, Educational Psychology 31 (2) 133-140

Bennet, S.W & O’ Neale (1998) Skill Development and Practical Work in Chemistry, University Chemistry Education United Kingdom, Milton Keynes, Bucks Department of Chemistry, Open University.

CES National (2002), Overview of Alternative Assessment Approaches Sourced from Fall Forum Workshop given by Excelsior High School.

Crist, C; Guill, D. & Harnes, P. (1998), Purposes of Assessment, Fall Forum Workshop given by Excelsior High School

Grant, W. (1990) The Case For Authentic Assessment, Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 2,2

Lake, C; Harmes, P. & Guill, D. (1998) Defining Assessment, Fall Forum Workshop given by Excelsior High School.

Muella< J. (2006), What is Authentic Assessment?, Naperville, IL, North Central College

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (1995), Critical Issues: Rethinking Assessment and its Roles in Supporting Educational Reforms

Okebukola, P. (2002) Beyond the Stereotype to New Trajectories in Science Teaching, Text of Special Lecture Presented at the 43rd Annual Conference of the Science Teachers Association of Nigeria (STAN) and Commonwealth Association of Science, Technology and Mathematics Educators (CASTME)

Oloruntegbe, K.O.(2000) Effect of Teachers’ Sesnsitization on Students’ Acquisition of Science Process Skills and Attitudes, Unpublished Ph.D Thesis of Faculty of Education, University of Benin

Oloruntegbe, K.O. & Omoifo C.N. (2000) Assessing Process Skills in STM Education: Going Beyond Papeer and Pencil Tests< Educational Thought, 1(1) 35-44

Oloruntegbe, K.O. & Omoifo C.N. (!999) On-the Spot Assessment: An Additive to Paper and Pencil Test Technique for Assessing Science Process Skills, 40rh Annual Conference Proceeding of the Science Teacheres Association of Nigeria.Pages 41-47

Shavelson, R.J; Baxter, G. P & Pine, J. (1999), Performance Assessment in Science, Applied Measurement in Education, 4 (4) 347-362

Southwest Minnesota State University (2004) Educational Performance Assessment System, Communities for Investigating Learnig and Teaching, Marshall MN 56,258

US Department of Education (1993) Performance Assessment, in Zimmermann, J. (Editor) Consumer Guide, Office of Educational Research and improvement, 2

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