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The Nuts and Bolts of PISA

As promised this post will get into the nuts and bolts of how to use the PISA assessment items to improve instruction. These test questions are rich with ideas that will extend student learning.

The first stop on the tour of these released assessment items is the site that gives you access.
http://www.pisa.oecd.org/pages/0,3417,en_32252351_32236130_1_1_1_1_1,00.html

From this site you can take the test or simple browse some of the released items and even view the marking guides. The first science item that pops up is on biodiversity.

The question explains that there are two diagrams of food webs. One has lower biodiversity and one has a higher level (more pathways to get food). There are two questions that follow. The first is a simple one that tells you if the students can read the diagram and the second question digs into what would happen if one organism was removed from each web. Both questions are valuable but the second set involves some problem solving.

This kind of question is valuable because it teaches us how to write richer questions. I often write questions with a short stem and then a set of multiple choice or short answers and then think that is enough. This one question tells me that if I include some reading prior to the question I can give instruction as well as scaffold the question more effectively for students.
There is a question on climate change, clones and diets that are similar to the food webs with rich information, a graphic and some well focused questions. If I pay attention to only the questions that follow there is a rich pattern of diverse levels of thinking required by the students. In each case the focus is on a big idea and not a simple mono dimensional topic. The focus of the science is applied.

There is a question in the 2006 released items that shows how to use first person accounts of science to teach concepts and to give students an opportunity to apply that science and demonstrate understanding. In this item they use the diary of a Dr. who was studying puerperal fever in the 1840’s. The stem explains that people at this time blamed this fever on everything from earthquakes to extraterrestrials. We still have people who believe causation in science when there is no scientific evidence to back up the ideas (think astrology as an example here). One of the questions asks for an extended response from the student that would address that missing evidence. My students love questions that require them to think if there is enough information in the stem to guide them.
This extended response and evidence type of question needs to be part of the instructional sequence before it is presented in an assessment. That is the key to success. In my class the presentation occurs in discussions, on assignments, in labs and even in short thinking activities. In each case the students get a chance to share their thinking and responses. As a class we get to offer constructive feedback to help them improve the strength of their responses. By the time these students get to this type of question on any of my assessments they are ready to go.

So, check out the PISA site and begin with the most recent assessment. Then, work your way down to the earlier years. Some of the questions are the same but each year offers a few new items that have the potential to change the way your students view assessments. In earlier years we were instructed to teach students how to take the ITED tests and how to guess more successfully on multiple choice tests and such. That was a huge waste of time. The PISA assessments are instructional tools that can transform the way you view what you ask of students in both your formative and summative assessments. For that they are a rich mine of solid gold instructional ideas.

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