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What is tested?: National tests and their potential impact on teachers’ content selection
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of Educational Sciences, Department of Education. (SMED)
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of Educational Sciences, Department of Education. (SMED)
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of Educational Sciences, Department of Education. (SMED)
2014 (English)Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Research questions, objectives and theoretical framework

The use of centralized testing seems to be in constant motion throughout the world. Sweden as one example, has in recent years increased the use of centralized testing of students, where mandatory national tests is introduces in more subjects and at several occasions during the primary school years. Since 2010, all students in the 9th grade in Sweden have to take national tests in one of the science subjects of physics, chemistry or biology. The aims of the tests are wide, they are supposed both to support teachers’ efforts to make equal and fair assessment and grading of students and to provide a basis for analyzing to which extent the knowledge requirements are met (National Agency for Education 2011).

In this paper we will present two studies within a project focusing on the effects of the introduction of national tests in science. The purpose of the paper is to examine first what content that is included in the tests, i. e. what knowledge is valued, and second, how the centrally controlled tests influence teachers' perceptions of what is "good" science education and how teachers perceive that the tests have influenced their teaching. Third we will compare and discuss the results from the two studies in terms of scientific literacy.

What content that should be taught and assessed within science education has not got one answer.Roberts (2011) discuss what constitutes “good” science teaching in terms of “Visions” for scientific literacy. According to Roberts, two different visions have been favoured in the western world with regard to how science should be framed in order for pupils to be “scientifically literate”. Roberts calls these visions Vision I and Vision II.Briefly, in vision I it is the scientific discipline content that is to be taught, there is a notion that the learned scientific knowledge automatically can be applied when an application is required. In vision II, the ability to apply the knowledge is not automatic, it is rather something a person needs to learn. The use of curriculum emphases is another way to categorize the possible content choices in science teaching (Roberts 1994; 2011). The typology includes seven different emphases on science and describe an epistemological content dimension about scientific knowledge and scientific activities.

Concerning teachers’ views on the influence of the tests on their practice, a common reaction to the introduction of national tests is that the teaching content is adapted to what is to be tested (Au 2007; Hamilton & Berends 2006; Orpwood 2007). Au (2007) conducted a meta-analysis of 49 American studies and found that the main effect of this type of test is that the teaching content is limited to what is to be tested, that the subject areas are fragmented into test-related pieces and that teachers increase their use of teacher-centered education. However, this picture of national tests is not clear-cut, because at the same time, Au also found that in a significant minority of the examined cases the teaching content actually expanded, that the knowledge areas were integrated and that more pupil-oriented cooperative pedagogy was used. The results suggest that the impact of the tests may depend on how they are designed. Au (2009) concludes though that this kind of formal control is a way of controlling teachers’ instructional practice, because it creates norms about what is considered “good” teaching and “good” teachers.


The empirical data for this paper consists of both national tests and interviews with teachers. A first study about the content in the tests is presented in Almqvist & Lundqvist (2013) and Lundqvist & Lidar (2013) has earlier studied teachers’ view about the tests.

The national tests given during the period 2009-2012 in biology, chemistry and physics, as well as information given to the teachers about the assessment guidelines, are included as empirical material in the study. Since it is the teachers themselves that mark the tests and report the results, the guidelines for assessment are central in this information. By analyzing these documents, and not only the tests given to the students, we can clarify what kind of knowledge that is regarded as relevant and valid.

Interviews were made with 29 teachers, all teaching physics, chemistry and/or biology in grade 6-9 in Swedish compulsory school. In order to find variation among teachers’ perceptions of the implementation of the tests, the selection of teachers was made from participants in a survey carried out within the project (Lidar et al 2012). Data was collected through semi-structured telephone interviews, which each lasted for 35-60 minutes. All interviews were audio recorded and transcribed. The teachers were asked questions about their teaching and assessment practice and how they perceive how the tests have affected their practice.

Curriculum emphases are used as an analytical tool to analyse the content in the tests and for analysing the teachers’ talk about the tests and how the tests have influenced their teaching. With the curriculum emphases as an analytical tool it is possible to analyse what content that is included and excluded in the tests and in the teachers’ talk about the tests.

Preliminary results and implications                                   

The analysis of the tests shows that a student, to pass the tests, needs to answer correctly on questions about scientific concepts, models theories, about scientific ways of thinking about the world and finally about scientific methods. It also shows that knowledge about the use of science in relation to everyday problems or political and moral issues are not required to pass the tests. For higher grades, however, the students also need to be able to give correct answers on questions about the use of science in relation to everyday problems and to political and moral issues. In relation to the two visions of scientific literacy, this means that students, in order to pass the tests at least need to be able to answer questions on knowledge privileged in education built on Vision I.

The results from the interviews show that there are three subject areas where teachers say national tests have supplied their teaching new content-related aspects; laboratory work, assignments about scientific arguments and assignments about the history of science. What unites these content areas is that they all call for a testing of the intellectual dimension of science, what Douglas Roberts (1994) calls "The Structure of Science", one of the seven knowledge emphases. Since the teachers in this study describes that these three substantive areas are parts that they found important, and that they have added to their teaching, it seems to be a content that has not been taught to any great extent before.

The results from the studies will further be compared and discussed in relation to research about scientific literacy and how the selection of content centrally made might have consequences on teachers practice and also on which citizen that is fostered.


Almqvist, Jonas & Lundqvist, Eva (2013). De nationella provens innehåll: vilken scientific literacy mäts i NO-proven [The content in the national tests: what scientific literacy is assessed in the science tests?]. In Eva Lundqvist, Roger Säljö and Leif Östman (Eds.), Scientific Literacy. Teori och praktik. Stockholm: Gleerups förlag.

Au, Wayne (2007): High-stakes testing and curricular control: A qualitative metasynthesis. Educational Researcher, 36, 258-267.

Au, Wayne (2009). Unequal by design. High-Stake Testing and the Standardization of Inequality. New York: Routledge.

Hamilton, Laura S. & Berends, Mark (2006): Instructional practices related to standards and assessments. RAND. Retrieved from http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/working_papers/2006/RAND_WR374.pdf

Lidar, Malena, Karlberg, Martin, Lundqvist, Eva, & Almqvist, Jonas (2012): Manner of teaching and teaching traditions in Science Education: What do teachers emphasize? Paper presented at ECER in Cadiz, Spanien, September 2012.

Lundqvist, Eva & Lidar, Malena (2013). Nationella prov i NO och lärares undervisningsinnehåll [National tests in science and teachers’ content selection]. Utbildning och demokrati. Tidskrift för didaktik och utbildningspolitik, 22, 85-106.

National Agency for Education  (2011). Om nationella prov. [About national tests]. Retrieved from http://www.skolverket.se/prov_och_bedomning/2.1100

Orpwood, Graham (2007). Assessing scientific literacy: threats and opportunities. I C. Linder, L. Östman & P-O Wickman (Eds.). Promoting scientific literacy: Science education research in transaction. Procedings of the Linnaeus Tercentenary Symposium in Uppsala, Sweden.

Roberts, D. A. (1994). Developing the concept of "curriculum emphases" in science education. Nordisk Pedagogik, 14, 10-25.

Roberts, D. A. (2011). Competing Visions of Scientific Literacy. The Influence of a Science Curriculum Policy Image. In Cedric Linder, Leif Östman, Douglas A. Roberts, Per-Olof Wickman, Gaalen Erickson & Allan MacKinnon (Eds.), Exploring the Landscape of Scientific Literacy. New York; Routledge.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Keyword [en]
national tests, content selection, curriculum emphases, scientific literacy
National Category
Research subject
Curriculum Studies
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-231501OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-231501DiVA: diva2:744618
ECER (European Conference on Educational research)
National tests in biology, physics and chemistry: potential influence on teachers' teaching practice
Swedish Research Council
Available from: 2014-09-08 Created: 2014-09-08 Last updated: 2015-03-23

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