Recent science education reform has been marked by a shift away from a focus on facts toward deep, rich, conceptual understanding. This requires assessment that also focuses on conceptual understanding rather than recall of facts. This study outlines our development of a new assessment framework and tool-a taxonomy- which, unlike existing frameworks and tools, is grounded firmly in a framework that considers the critical role that models play in science. It also provides instructors a resource for assessing students' ability to reason about models that are central to the organization of key scientific concepts. We describe preliminary data arising from the application of our tool to exam questions used by instructors of a large-enrollment cell and molecular biology course over a 5-yr period during which time our framework and the assessment tool were increasingly used. Students were increasingly able to describe and manipulate models of the processes and systems being studied in this course as measured by assessment items. However, their ability to apply these models in new contexts did not improve. Finally, we discuss the implications of our results and the future directions for our research.
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