Archived Information

What We Should Be Assessing

To change our thinking about what we should be assessing, President Obama has issued the following challenge:

"I'm calling on our nation’s governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.”

—President Barack Obama, March 10, 2009

Measuring these complex skills requires designing and developing assessments that address the full range of expertise and competencies implied by the standards. Cognitive research and theory provide rich models and representations of how students understand and think about key concepts in the curriculum, and how the knowledge structures we want students to have by the time they reach college develop over time. An illustration of the power of combining research and theory with technology is provided by the work of Jim Minstrell, a former high school physics teacher who developed an approach to teaching and assessment that carefully considers learners’ thinking.

Minstrell’s work began with a compilation of student ideas about force and motion based on both the research literature and the observations of educators. Some of these student ideas, or “facets” in Minstrell’s terminology, are considered scientifically correct to the degree one would expect at the stage of introductory physics. Others are partially incorrect and still others are seriously flawed. Using these facets as a foundation, Minstrell designed a web-based assessment program with sets of questions that can be used to inform learning about force and motion, rather than simply test how much students have learned (Minstrell & Kraus, 2005). Minstrell’s facet assessments and instructional materials are available on the web (

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