EXAMS INSTITUTE MOVES, GETS NEW DIRECTOR
Pick up almost any newspaper these days, and you'll see that there is a great deal of national concern about education and about measuring educational outcomes through testing. New initiatives at the federal level have increased the importance of testing--to levels that some find alarming. "The good news is that chemistry education is way ahead of the curve," says Thomas A. Holme of the chemistry department at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
Holme is the new director of the American Chemical Society Division of Chemical Education's Examinations Institute. He points out that "chemical educators have been working on providing the chemistry community with assessment tools for almost 70 years."
The exams institute, which produces and sells standardized tests in chemistry for high school and college chemistry students, is a nonprofit arm of the Division of Chemical Education. It traces its roots to 1930, and it grew by first creating general chemistry exams. The qualitative analysis test series was begun in 1939; the organic test series, in 1942; and the quantitative analysis test series, in 1944. After World War II, the program was expanded to include virtually every undergraduate course in chemistry. High school tests were added in 1957.
The Examinations Institute is overseen by a board of trustees appointed by the division. The trustees meet on Sunday morning at each ACS national meeting, and they set policies for the institute, whose operations are financed by the sales of the assessment materials it produces.
Originally housed at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, the examinations program was at St. Louis University from 1950 until 1960 and at the University of South Florida from 1960 until 1987. In 1987, Dwaine Eubanks was appointed director, and the institute was moved back to Stillwater. It moved to South Carolina in 1992 when Eubanks joined the chemistry faculty of Clemson University. As of July 1, the peripatetic institute has been housed at the University of Wisconsin.
Many of the exams currently marketed by the institute are for college-level general chemistry. In addition to exams for the full-year course, separate exams are available for the first or second term; also available are exams that emphasize conceptual questions with less reliance on numerical manipulations.
Currently, 45 different exams are offered. National norms for these exams are calculated and published so educators can reliably compare the performance of their students to these national norms.
Exams are produced by committees of volunteers. Holme explains: "Committee members meet at national meetings to craft and revise multiple-choice questions. These questions are pulled together into two trial exams. Volunteers from around the country give the trial exams to their students and report student answers for the questions. The committees then meet to select the final set of questions based on statistical analysis of performances on the trial versions."
A typical general chemistry exam takes two years and four or five meetings of the committee to develop. "Many volunteers describe their experience on the committee as a significant learning opportunity," Holme says.
In addition to the examinations, test-question banks, drawn from former exams and trial exam questions that are not included in the final version, can be purchased. A packet for assessment of small-scale laboratory experiments is also available. And recently, student study guides have been produced and are popular items. The study guides for general and organic chemistry can be purchased at a reduced price by ACS student affiliate groups to be used in fund-raising activities for their chapters.
Holme believes that multimedia formats provide opportunities to enhance the way that people access assessment materials. "While it is relatively easy to put exams on a CD/DVD or online, the institute holds a higher standard," Holme says. "To ensure the validity of new formats, we are already preparing the research studies that will investigate how the new formats affect the performance of students," he adds.
Looking to the near future, Holme says "educators will continue to see the high-quality, paper-and-pencil exams that are the hallmark of the institute, and then increasingly they will see us introducing new products and formats for exams that will enhance their options for assessing student learning."
Holme received his Ph.D. from Rice University in 1987 and has been on the faculty at Wisconsin for eight years. The associate director of the institute is Joseph Bariyanga, a native of Rwanda who received his Ph.D. at the University of Montreal and is a visiting assistant professor in chemistry at Wisconsin.
More information about the institute can be found at its website at http://www.uwm.edu/Dept/chemexams. The site includes information about available materials and their cost, the history of the institute, national norms of exams that are available, and volunteer opportunities. Contact information is available at this home page as well.