School Improvement in Maryland
Biology-Instructional Strategies
Understanding Assessment Limits - At Least Relationships
The Science Core Learning Goal (CLG) document is used for both assessment and instruction. The “assessment limits” included in the 1999 document were derived from the “at least” list that was included in the 1996 document. Assessment limits help clarify what a student will be asked to know, what a teacher will be asked to teach, and the content from which test questions will be drawn. The Maryland State Board of Education (MSBE) requires that all students have the opportunity to learn content about which they will be assessed. The clarification of content in the assessment limits supports this requirement.

Assessment limits can be thought of in two ways: for instruction, they represent the minimum content that must be taught (the course must include at least the content outlined by the assessment limits); for assessment, they represent the maximum domain from which test questions will be developed (assessment limits identify the content which is fair game for the development of test items). All assessment items developed for the High School Assessments will be drawn from the assessment limits. However, not every assessment limit will be tested on every form of the test.

There are five science Core Learning Goals:

  • Goal 1: Skills and Processes
  • Goal 2: Concepts in Earth/Space Science
  • Goal 3: Concepts in Biology
  • Goal 4: Concepts in Chemistry
  • Goal 5: Concepts in Physics
The skills and processes in Goal 1 are essential to science learning and will be assessed with each of the other four goals. In Goal 1, the indicators and the assessment limits are identical. Those marked “NT” will not be assessed on the biology test. However, they are still appropriate for instruction and other types of formative assessments.

The assessment limits included in Goal 3 (concepts of Biology) are a subset of the concepts that should be covered in a biology course. Goals 2, 4, and 5 do not include “assessment limits,” per se. Since these content areas will not be assessed in Phase 1, they have not as yet been revised. Instead of assessment limits, these goals still contain an “at least” list. As Maryland develops assessments for Goals 2, 4, and 5, their “at least” designation will also be changed to assessment limits.

An illustration of assessment limits follows. In the biology CLG, Expectation 3.3 deals with genetics. Indicator 1 states that, “The student will demonstrate that the sorting and recombination of genes during sexual reproduction has an effect on variation in offspring.” The two assessment limits which follow indicator 3.3.1 state:

  • meiosis (chromosome number reduced by one-half; crossing-over may occur)
  • fertilization (combination of gametes).
Therefore, test questions derived from biology indicator 3.3.1 may include questions about how fertilization is related to variation in sexually reproducing organisms, specifically, the role of meiosis in producing gametes, in reducing chromosome number, and the inheritance of new traits that result from crossing-over. Test questions may not include items dealing with the steps of meiosis, the identification of structures present in cells during meiosis, or the structure of the organs or organ systems where meiosis occurs.

Vocabulary that is essential to understanding the concept being assessed may appear in an item, but vocabulary that relates to explicit details not essential to the understanding of an overall concept will not. For example, knowledge of trophic levels is critical to understanding food webs (3.5.4), but knowledge of Turner's Syndrome is not essential to understanding the effects of an abnormal number of chromosomes on an organism (3.3.4).

Some critics may say that the use of assessment limits means teachers will be "teaching to the test." However, the phrase "teaching to the test" is misleading and a misnomer. Obviously, one can not teach to a test since the test questions are not known. What teachers really do is teach to a target, the local school system curriculum, and devise appropriate assessments (tests) to check how well the students have learned what they were taught. The extent of student learning is assessed through observations, classroom quizzes, homework, written assignments, formal teacher made tests, structured laboratory activities, etc. How else will teachers know if their students have learned? The local school system curriculum should be closely aligned with the CLG, and formative assessments should prepare students for the end-of-course assessment.

Concern has been expressed that some teachers will adjust the curriculum to include only the content defined by the assessment limits. The “at least” portion of the original Core Learning Goals was designed to outline the non-negotiable content for a given course, not the entire course. Local principals, supervisors, and others must monitor instruction to insure that the curriculum being taught meets the requirements established by the local system. Reasonable requirements for coverage of the curriculum, pacing, grouping, and other instructional decisions are developed locally.

The 1999 Core Learning Goal documents also differ from previous versions through adjustments to a limited number of indicators and the removal of sample classroom learning activities. No changes were made in the goal or expectation statements, however, the language of certain indicators was modified if it was shown to be ambiguous or contained multiple actions for instruction and/or assessment. In cases of the latter, the actions were split between separate indicators. For example, an indicator that stated that students will analyze and evaluate was divided into separate indicators for each verb.

In conclusion, the CLG document represents the “core” content for both instruction and assessment. Local school systems should use it appropriately when making decisions about curriculum, instruction and assessment.