When Multiple Choice Doesn’t Cut It: Using Virtual Performance Testing for Science Assessment

With national initiatives in place to increase educational standards (specifically the No Child Left Behind Act) there comes the inevitable need for progress assessment.  Many class subjects lend themselves well to a more traditional “multiple choice” testing format, but science assessment has struggled to employ this technique effectively.  Science education combines a mixture of rote memorization, which can be tested by traditional methods, with an understanding of the scientific method, problem solving, and deeper scientific inquiry, which are difficult to summarize for the purpose of answering “A, B, C or D”.

Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education have developed a new technique for science testing called the Virtual Performance Assessment (VPA) Project in which middle school students are able to interact with a virtual environment to assess their scientific inquiry skills.  Students interact with their virtual world as an “avatar” and can conduct experiments both in the lab and the field to recognize problems and think of ways to approach the answer.  Student performance on virtual tasks is continually assessed and a “standardized” score is produced for comparison to traditional testing methods.

Jody Clarke-Midura, head of the program at Harvard, said, “We assess knowledge of the scientific method in the form of a multiplication test.  Students may not understand what that means.  In the real world, you don’t have four choices to solve a problem.  We put the kids in a real situation and look at how they solve the problem.”   “Science is innovation” and this is one example where science and technology have been used to create an innovative teaching tool for bettering both learning and assessment.

See the following links for more information about VPA and how schools are using it: