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Student-Talk: Assessing An Assessment

Kathy Long, FOSS Assessment Coordinator, Lawrence Hall of Science
March 07, 2001 | Assessment

December 7, 2000

Dear FOSS Company:

We have just finished studying the Ideas and Inventions Module. We have also just finished reading two books, The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle by Don Wulffson and Accidents May Happen by Charlotte Foltz Jones. As the title of the second book demonstrates, many inventions occur as the result of an accident.

We disagree with the wording of question number four on the end-of-module assessment: Which of these is ALWAYS true about inventions? We disagree with the word ALWAYS, especially in capital letters. For example, we agree that although the process of vulcanization came from the idea of improving rubber, the actual invention came from an accident, not a direct idea to invent this type of rubber. (FOSS Science Stories: Ideas Inventions, page 3)

In Accidents May Happen, pages 2-3, Corn Flakes® and Wheaties® also came to be because of accidents. Yes, Dr. John Kellogg and his brother Will had ideas about inventing foods from grains, but Corn Flakes® were the result of an accident, not a specific idea. Wheaties® has an accidental story, too.

We simply think ALWAYS is too strong an emphasis to describe how inventions come from ideas. Perhaps "usually" would be a better word. Rarely is anything ALWAYS or NEVER.

Thank you for consideration of our letter.


Judy Wachholz
Class 4B, St. John Lutheran School

Here's the question about which these students were concerned:

  1. Which of these is ALWAYS true about inventions?
    1. Inventions always are useful.
    2. Inventions always start with an idea.
    3. Inventions always help you do something faster or better.
    4. Inventions always turn into an idea.

Dear Class 4B,

Thanks so much for sending us your letter and taking the time to be so thoughtful about the assessment questions you answered at the end of the FOSS Ideas and Inventions Module. We very much appreciate your feedback. We count on feedback from students and teachers who are using the program to help us continue to make it an effective one.

To tell you the truth, we struggled a bit with this question when we were developing it, and so I'd like to share our thinking with you. We started out by using the word "usually," but then we discovered that you could say that inventions usually are useful, inventions usually help you do something faster or better (or at least that seems to be what makes them a viable invention), and, of course, inventions usually start with an idea. That would have meant that there were three correct answers! I think we can all agree that D would not be the right answer no matter which word is used.

You make a good point about inventions that were accidents. In developing the question, we were thinking that, even if an invention was an accident, each inventor started out with an idea to create something new or solve a problem. But as you pointed out so well, the accidents that turned into valuable inventions were not the result of a direct idea. So, perhaps you are right that ALWAYS, especially in capital letters, is too strong.

Designing good assessments is a difficult task. Assessment questions are made up by groups of people who do their best to make the questions clear and correct, but since every person can interpret the meaning of words in a slightly different way, there are bound to be times when the questions could have been stated better. After receiving your letter and hearing about the thoughtful discussions you have had based on the assessment, I am even more convinced about the importance of assessment being an integral part of the learning process. Testing students to give them a grade is a far less noble purpose for assessment than stimulating thinking among those who are taking it!

We also appreciate you sending us the books that you were using and have added them to the resource list at FOSSweb. Again, we really depend on folks in the field to help us look for new resources that support the modules.

Thanks again for sending us your letter and your comments. If you find any more assessment questions that you think are unclear, we'd love to hear from you again. Our goal is to make the assessments as valid and reliable as possible, and your comments help us reach that goal. We keep a file of all such letters and comments and consider them carefully whenever we have the chance to revise the program. We greatly appreciate your efforts!


Kathy Long
FOSS Assessment Coordinator