This chapter discusses the roles of assessment in Biology learning and teaching, the principles that should guide assessment of the subject and the need for both formative and summative assessment. It also provides guidance on internal assessment and details of the public assessment of Biology. Finally, information is given on how standards are established and maintained, and how results are reported with reference to these standards. General guidance on assessment can be found in the Senior Secondary Curriculum Guide (SSCG) (CDC, 2009).
5.1 The Roles of Assessment
Assessment is the practice of collecting evidence of student learning. It is a vital and integral part of classroom instruction, and serves several purposes and audiences.
First and foremost, it gives feedback to students, teachers, schools and parents on the effectiveness of teaching and on students’ strengths and weaknesses in learning.
Second, it provides information to schools, school systems, government, tertiary institutions and employers to enable them to monitor standards and to facilitate selection decisions.
The most important role of assessment is in promoting learning and monitoring students’
progress. However, in the senior secondary years, the more public roles of assessment for certification and selection come to the fore. Inevitably, these imply high-stakes uses of assessment since the results are typically employed to make critical decisions about individuals.
The Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) provides a common end-of-school credential that gives access to university study, work, and further education and training. It summarises student performance in the four core subjects and in various elective subjects, including both discipline-oriented subjects such as Biology and the new Applied Learning courses. It needs to be interpreted in conjunction with other information about students given in the Student Learning Profile.
5.2 Formative and Summative Assessment
It is useful to distinguish between the two main purposes of assessment, namely “assessment for learning” and “assessment of learning”.
and utilising this to make learning more effective and to introduce any necessary changes to teaching strategies. We refer to this kind of assessment as “formative assessment” because it is all about forming or shaping learning and teaching. Formative assessment is something that should take place on a daily basis and typically involves close attention to small “chunks” of learning.
“Assessment of learning” is concerned with determining progress in learning, and is referred to as “summative” assessment because it is all about summarising how much learning has taken place. Summative assessment is normally undertaken at the conclusion of a significant period of instruction (e.g. at the end of the year, or of a key stage of schooling) and reviews much larger “chunks” of learning.
In practice, a sharp distinction cannot always be made between formative and summative assessment, because the same assessment can in some circumstances serve both formative and summative purposes. Teachers can refer to the Senior Secondary Curriculum Guide (SSCG) (CDC, 2009) for further discussion of formative and summative assessment.
Formative assessment should be distinguished from continuous assessment. The former refers to the provision of feedback to improve learning and teaching based on formal or informal assessment of student performance, while the latter refers to the assessment of students’
on-going work and may involve no provision of feedback that helps to promote better learning and teaching. For example, accumulating results in class tests carried out on a weekly basis, without giving students constructive feedback, may neither be effective formative assessment nor meaningful summative assessment.
There are good educational reasons why formative assessment should be given more attention and accorded a higher status than summative assessment, on which schools tended to place a greater emphasis in the past. There is research evidence on the beneficial effects of formative assessment when used for refining instructional decision-making in teaching and generating feedback to improve learning. For this reason, the CDC report Learning to Learn – The Way Forward in Curriculum Development (CDC, 2001) recommended that there should be a change in assessment practices, with schools placing due emphasis on formative assessment to make assessment for learning an integral part of classroom teaching.
It is recognised, however, that the primary purpose of public assessment, which includes both public examinations and moderated school-based assessments (SBA), is to provide summative assessments of the learning of each student. While it is desirable that students are exposed to SBA tasks in a low-stakes context and that they benefit from practice and experience with such tasks (i.e. for formative assessment purposes) without penalty, similar
Another distinction to be made is between internal assessment and public assessment.
Internal assessment refers to the assessment practices that teachers and schools employ as part of the ongoing learning and teaching process during the three years of senior secondary studies. In contrast, public assessment refers to the assessment conducted as part of the assessment process in place for all schools. Within the context of the HKDSE, this means both the public examinations and the moderated SBA conducted or supervised by the HKEAA. On balance, internal assessment should be more formative, whereas public assessment tends to be more summative. Nevertheless, this need not be seen as a simple dichotomy. The inclusion of SBA in public assessment is an attempt to enhance formative assessment or assessment for learning within the context of the HKDSE.
5.3 Assessment Objectives
The assessment objectives are closely aligned with the curriculum framework and the broad learning outcomes presented in earlier chapters. The assessments in Biology aim to evaluate students’ abilities to:
recall and show understanding of facts, concepts and principles of biology, and the relationships between different topic areas in the curriculum framework;
apply biological knowledge, concepts and principles to explain phenomena and observations, and to solve problems;
formulate working hypotheses, and plan and perform tests for them;
demonstrate practical skills related to the study of biology;
present data in various forms, such as tables, graphs, charts, drawings, diagrams, and transpose them from one form into another;
analyse and interpret both numerical and non-numerical data in forms such as continuous prose, diagrams, photographs, charts and graphs – and make logical deductions and inferences and draw appropriate conclusions;
evaluate evidence and detect errors;
generate ideas; select, synthesise and communicate ideas and information clearly, precisely and logically;
demonstrate understanding of the applications of biology to daily life and its contributions to the modern world;
show awareness of the ethical, moral, social, economic and technological implications of biology, and critically evaluate biology-related issues; and
make suggestions, choices and judgments about issues affecting the individual, society and the environment.
5.4 Internal Assessment
This section presents the guiding principles that can be used as the basis for designing internal assessment and some common assessment practices for Biology for use in schools.
Some of these principles are common to both internal and public assessment.
5.4.1 Guiding Principles
Internal assessment practices should be aligned with curriculum planning, teaching progression, student abilities and local school contexts. The information collected will help to motivate, promote and monitor student learning, and will also help teachers to find ways of promoting more effective learning and teaching.
(1) Alignment with the learning objectives
A range of assessment practices should be used to assess the achievement of different learning objectives for whole-person development, which include: knowledge and understanding of biological principles and concepts; scientific skills and processes; and positive values and attitudes. The weighting given to different areas in assessment should be discussed and agreed among teachers. The assessment purposes and assessment criteria should also be made known to students so that they can have a full understanding of what is expected of them.
(2) Catering for the range of student ability
Assessment practices at different levels of difficulty and in diverse modes should be used to cater for students with different aptitudes and abilities. This helps to ensure that capable students are challenged to develop their full potential and the less able ones are encouraged to sustain their interest and succeed in learning.
(3) Tracking progress over time
As internal assessment should not be a one-off exercise, schools are encouraged to use practices that can track learning progress over time (e.g. portfolios). Assessment practices of this kind allow students to set their own incremental targets and manage their own pace of learning, which will have a positive impact on their commitment to learning.
(4) Timely and encouraging feedback
Teachers should provide timely and encouraging feedback through a variety of means, such as constructive verbal comments during classroom activities and written remarks on assignments. Such feedback helps students to sustain their momentum in learning, and to identify their strengths and weaknesses.
familiar to students, schools are encouraged to design assessment tasks that make reference to the school’s own context (e.g. its location, relationship with the community, and mission).
(6) Making reference to the current progress in student learning
Internal assessment tasks should be designed with reference to students’ current progress, as this helps to overcome obstacles that may have a cumulative negative impact on learning.
Teachers should be mindful in particular of concepts and skills which form the basis for further development in learning.
(7) Feedback from peers and from the students themselves
In addition to giving feedback, teachers should also provide opportunities for peer assessment and self-assessment in student learning. The former enables students to learn among themselves, and the latter promotes reflective thinking which is vital for students’ lifelong learning.
(8) Appropriate use of assessment information to provide feedback
Internal assessment provides a rich source of data for providing evidence-based feedback on learning in a formative manner.
5.4.2 Internal Assessment Practices
A range of assessment practices suited to Biology, such as assignments, practical work and scientific investigations, oral questioning and projects, should be used to promote the attainment of the various learning outcomes. However, teachers should note that these practices should be an integral part of learning and teaching, not “add-on” activities.
Assignments are a valuable and widely used assessment tool that reflects students’ efforts, achievements, strengths and weaknesses over time. A variety of assignment tasks – such as exercises, essays, designing posters or leaflets, and model construction – can be used to allow students to demonstrate their understanding and creative ideas. The assignment tasks should be aligned with the learning objectives, teaching strategies and learning activities. Teachers can ask students to select a topic of interest, search for information, summarise their findings and devise their own ways of presenting their work (e.g. role-play, essays, poster designs or PowerPoint slides). Teachers should pay close attention to students’ organisation of the materials, the language they use, the breadth and depth of their treatment, and the clarity with which they explain concepts. The scores or grades for assignments can be used as part of the record of students’ progress; and the comments on their work, with suggestions for improvement, provide valuable feedback to them. Assignments can also help in evaluating the effectiveness of teaching by providing feedback upon which teachers can set further operational targets for students and make reasonable adjustments in their teaching strategies.
(2) Practical work and scientific investigation
Practical work and scientific investigation are common activities in the learning and teaching of science subjects. They offer students “hands-on” experience of exploring, and opportunities to show their interest, ingenuity and perseverance. In scientific investigations, teachers can first pose a problem and ask students to devise a plan and suggest appropriate experimental procedures for solving it – and the design of the investigations can then be discussed and, if necessary, modified. During such sessions, teachers can observe students’
practical skills and provide feedback on how the experiment/investigation might be improved.
Reading students’ laboratory reports can provide teachers with a good picture of students’
understanding of the biological concepts and principles involved, as well as their ability to handle and interpret data obtained in investigations.
(3) Oral questioning
Oral questioning can provide teachers with specific information on how students think in certain situations, as their responses often provide clues to their level of understanding, attitudes and abilities. Teachers can use a wide range of questions, from those which involve fact-finding, problem-posing, and reason-seeking to more demanding ones which promote higher levels of thinking and allow for a variety of acceptable responses. This can be a valuable supplement to conventional assessment methods.
A project can be any piece of extended work on any topic. Asking students to carry out project work provides an opportunity for them to study a topic of interest in depth. Teachers can make use of the project work listed in the Suggested Learning and Teaching activities for each section, and develop appropriate criteria to assess the ideas being formed and skills being developed by students during the process.
5.5 Public Assessment
5.5.1 Guiding Principles
Some principles guiding public assessment are outlined below for teachers’ reference.
(1) Alignment with the curriculum
The outcomes that are assessed and examined through the HKDSE should be aligned with the aims, learning targets and intended learning outcomes of the senior secondary curriculum.
To enhance the validity of the public assessment, the assessment procedures should address the range of valued learning outcomes, and not just those that are assessable through external
The public assessment for Biology will place emphasis on testing candidates’ ability to apply and integrate knowledge in authentic and novel situations. In addition, the SBA component extends the public assessment to include valuable scientific investigative skills and generic skills such as creativity, critical thinking, communication and problem-solving.
(2) Fairness, objectivity and reliability
Students should be assessed in ways that are fair and are not biased against particular groups of students. A characteristic of fair assessment is that it is objective and under the control of an independent examining authority that is impartial and open to public scrutiny. Fairness also implies that assessments provide a reliable measure of each student’s performance in a given subject so that, if they were to be repeated, very similar results would be obtained.
The assessments and examinations in the HKDSE need to accommodate the full spectrum of student aptitude and ability.
The public examination for Biology will contain questions testing candidates’ knowledge of the foundations and selected areas in biology, and test higher-order thinking skills. At the same time, the SBA component offers room for a wide range of activities to cater for the different preferences and readiness of students and/or schools.
(4) Standards-referencing reporting
The reporting system is “standards-referenced”, i.e. student performance is matched against standards, which indicate what students have to know and be able to do to merit a certain level of performance. Level descriptors will be developed for Biology in due course to provide information about the typical performance of candidates at the different levels.
The HKDSE qualification and the associated assessment and examinations system provide useful information to all parties. Firstly, it provides feedback to students on their performance and to teachers and schools on the quality of the teaching provided. Secondly, it communicates to parents, tertiary institutions, employers and the public at large what it is that students know and are able to do, in terms of how their performance matches the standards.
Thirdly, it facilitates selection decisions that are fair and defensible.
5.5.2 Assessment Design
The table below shows the assessment design of the subject with effect from the 2016 HKDSE Examination. The assessment design is subject to continual refinement in the light of feedback from live examinations. Full details are provided in the Regulations and Assessment Frameworks for the year of the examination and other supplementary documents, which are
available on the HKEAA website (www.hkeaa.edu.hk/en/hkdse/assessment/assessment_framework/).
Component Weighting Duration
Paper 1 Compulsory Part 60% 2½ hours
Paper 2 Elective Part
(a choice of two out of four elective topics) 20% 1 hour
School-based assessment (SBA) 20%
5.5.3 Public Examinations
The overall aim of the public examination is to assess candidates’ ability to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding in different areas of biology, and to apply this to familiar and unfamiliar situations.
Various kinds of items, including multiple-choice questions, short questions, structured questions and essays, are used to assess students’ performance in a broad range of skills and abilities. Multiple-choice questions permit a more comprehensive coverage of the curriculum, while basic knowledge and concepts can be tested through short questions. In structured questions, candidates may be required to analyse given information and to apply their knowledge to different situations. Finally, essay questions allow candidates to discuss biological issues in depth and demonstrate their ability to organise and communicate ideas logically and coherently. Schools may refer to the live examination papers regarding the format of the examination and the standards at which the questions are pitched.
5.5.4 School-based Assessment (SBA)
In the context of public assessment, SBA refers to assessments administered in schools and marked by the students’ own teachers. The primary rationale for SBA in Biology is to enhance the validity of the assessment by including the assessment of students’ practical
There are, however, some additional reasons for SBA. For example, it reduces dependence on the results of public examinations, which may not always provide the most reliable indication of the actual abilities of candidates. Obtaining assessments based on student performance over an extended period of time and developed by those who know the students best – their subject teachers – provides a more reliable assessment of each student.
Another reason for including SBA is to promote a positive “backwash effect” on students, teachers and school staff. Within Biology, SBA can serve to motivate students by requiring them to engage in meaningful activities; and for teachers, it can reinforce curriculum aims and good teaching practice, and provide structure and significance to an activity they are in any case involved in on a daily basis, namely assessing their own students.
The SBA of Biology covers the assessment of students’ performance in practical tasks throughout the S5 and S6 school years. Students are required to perform a stipulated number of pieces of practical work/investigations. The practical work/investigations should be integrated closely with the curriculum content and form a part of the normal learning and teaching process. In investigative work, students are required to: design and perform investigations; present, interpret and discuss their findings; and draw appropriate conclusions.
They are expected to make use of their knowledge and understanding of biology in performing these tasks, through which their practical, process and generic skills will be developed and assessed.
It should be noted that SBA is not an “add-on” element in the curriculum. The modes of SBA above are normal in-class and out-of-class activities suggested in the curriculum. The requirement to implement the SBA has taken into consideration the wide range of student ability and effort have been made to avoid unduly increasing the workload of both teachers and students. Detailed information on the requirements and implementation of the SBA and samples of assessment tasks are provided to teachers by the HKEAA.
5.5.5 Standards and the Reporting of Results
Standards-referenced reporting is adopted for the HKDSE. What this means is that candidates’ levels of performance are reported with reference to a set of standards as defined by cut scores on the mark scale for a given subject. Standards referencing relates to the way in which results are reported and does not involve any changes in how teachers or examiners mark student work. The set of standards for a given subject can be represented diagrammatically as shown in Figure 5.1.
Figure 5.1 Defining Levels of Performance via Cut Scores on the Mark Scale for a given subject
Within the context of the HKDSE there are five cut scores, which are used to distinguish five levels of performance (1–5), with 5 being the highest. A performance below the cut score for Level 1 is labelled as “Unclassified” (U).
For each of the five levels, a set of written descriptors has been developed to describe what the typical candidate performing at this level is able to do. The principle behind these descriptors is that they describe what typical candidates can do, not what they cannot do. In other words, they will describe performance in positive rather than negative terms. These descriptors represent “on-average” statements and may not apply precisely to individuals, whose performance within a subject may be variable and span two or more levels. Samples of students’ work at various levels of attainment are provided to illustrate the standards expected of them. These samples, when used together with the level descriptors, will be able to clarify the standards expected at the various levels of attainment.
In setting standards for the HKDSE, Levels 4 and 5 are set with reference to the standards achieved by students awarded grades AD in the HKALE. It needs to be stressed, however, that the intention is that the standards will remain constant over time not the percentages awarded at different levels, as these are free to vary in line with variations in overall student performance. Referencing Levels 4 and 5 to the standards associated with the old grades AD is important for ensuring a degree of continuity with past practice, for facilitating tertiary selection and for maintaining international recognition.