In this chapter we focus on how the changes you make in your instruction can interact with what is happening beyond your classroom and school. We look more closely at how an assessment system can work, how assessment for monitoring purposes can fit with what you do in your classroom, and the importance of the way assessment results are reported. We close with a final example, developed by a teacher, and some ideas about how you can help move your system forward.
Most of this book has focused on ideas you can use in your classroom to collect evidence about how your students use science and engineering practices in the context of crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas and how their learning progresses over time. But ideally you are—or soon will be—playing your part in a system of science assessment that is designed around the same vision of science learning.
The most important characteristic of an assessment system is that each of its components is designed with the same set of goals in mind, even if they are used for different purposes. People often distinguish between classroom-based assessments and external assessments, with external ones being those designed or selected by districts or states that are used to monitor learning. This category includes the statewide science tests required for accountability purposes as well as national assessments like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and international ones like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). But this distinction has more to do with the purposes for which the results are used than with the actual design of assessments.
The new frontier in science assessment is to use a variety of assessments that can provide the different sorts of information about student learning that teachers, parents, administrators, the school community, and policy makers need—just as you use a variety of assessment tools in your own classroom depending on what you need the results for.
Although this idea is not new, it is nonetheless challenging to implement, and districts and states are just beginning to respond.1 The challenges of covering the breadth and the depth of the new standards such as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have made moving to a systems approach even more important. Even a system of assessments won’t be able to cover everything included in the curriculum, but a balanced system will include these three components:
- Assessments used in the classroom as part of day-to-day instruction. These may be designed by individual teachers or by developers of curriculum units that include assessment as an integral aspect of the instruction. They may be used for formative or summative purposes, as discussed in Chapter 1.
- Assessments designed for monitoring purposes. Districts and states need to collect information about student learning so that they can monitor the effectiveness of the public education system. Assessments used for this purpose may have many formats and often are like the activities teachers use in instruction. But, to measure the learning of large numbers of students across schools and districts that may have different curricula, states typically use assessments developed outside the classroom so that they are standardized to provide fair and valid measures. They may be administered either at a fixed time or at a time that fits the instructional sequence in the classroom.
- Indicators of the quality of instruction and students’ access to opportunities to learn and do science. In a state that is changing its approach to science education, it is especially important to monitor the quality of the instruction students are getting during the transition. These indicators could include, for example, time allocated to science teaching, adoption of instructional materials that reflect the 2012 framework, and classroom coverage of the material in new standards. Districts and states might use program inspections, student
and teacher surveys, documentation of teachers’ professional development, and documentation of classroom assignments of students’ work to monitor opportunity to learn.
Monitoring student learning on a large scale is an important responsibility for a system, but collecting information about the development of three-dimensional learning on a large scale over time is not easy. Designing assessments for this new challenge involves competing goals. One goal is to rely primarily on performance-based tasks that allow students to actively demonstrate what they can do. Another is to minimize the amount of time students spend on assessments that are needed primarily for external accountability purposes. It is also important to collect information that is reliable enough to support high-stakes decisions, and to do so at an affordable cost.
Practical concerns have made tests used for monitoring and those used in classroom instruction look different. When summative results are needed for large groups of students—as with state assessments—assessment developers are challenged to ensure that the tasks are consistent across the settings in which the students are tested, are affordable, and can cover the material to be tested in a reasonable amount of time.
In the past few decades, experiments with new ways to provide standardized information that can be compared across groups and across time have offered new possibilities for meeting these challenges. One important innovation is that procedures have been developed for using classroom assessments for monitoring purposes. Quality-control procedures can be used to make sure the assessment experience is consistent enough across testing sites and times so that it is fair to compare the results. An example from Queensland, Australia, illustrates how this works.
Queensland has used a system in which exams given to students in grades 11 and 12 are based in their local schools but can be used by the central education authority. The system is set up as a partnership. The central authority establishes the curriculum, but the local schools develop their own programs of study and assessments. Although these have to be approved by the authority, local teachers are nevertheless actively involved in a set of procedures for developing consensus about expectations and performance levels and collecting and scoring student work. Similar procedures are used by the International Baccalaureate program, which bases student grades on a combination of assessments given by teachers and standardized, externally developed tests.
Another strategy that has shown promise is for a central authority, such as a district or state, to use standardized performance assessments that fit naturally into instruction to collect assessment data. For example, a district might ask teachers to spend part of the year on a replacement unit—that is, a curriculum unit designed to provide three-dimensional instruction that includes assessment tasks. This strategy is a way to support teachers in building the new approach into their instruction and can also be a way to collect assessment information.
From an educator’s point of view, several aspects of an integrated science assessment system that includes assessments used for monitoring are especially important. The assessments designed for monitoring purposes should be linked closely enough to what you are doing in the classroom so that the results are genuinely useful to you. They should be fair, too, in the sense that students will have had an adequate opportunity to learn so they can perform well on them. This sort of assessment system will also offer many opportunities for teachers to participate in the development and scoring of the assessments. These opportunities are your chance to help make sure that the monitoring assessments actually reflect classroom instruction.
Even though most districts and states offer teachers opportunities to participate in such activities as assessment development, standard-setting, and scoring, teachers have nevertheless had limited influence over most assessments that are
developed outside their classrooms. Even if your district or state is not moving quickly toward three-dimensional assessment, you may also play a role in helping your students and their parents interpret assessment results and use the information they provide in a constructive way.
The way assessment results are reported is sometimes taken for granted, but it is critical to making sure that an assessment is used to achieve the beneficial purpose for which it was designed. In an assessment system of the kind we are talking about, the information that is reported, to whom it is provided, and how it is communicated are even more important. A variety of information is collected at different times, using different assessment tools, but the results of each type of assessment coordinate with the results of others.
New assessments will reflect a wide range of science activities and take many forms. Their results will take varied forms too: for instance, they might include graphical displays, descriptive text, reports of numerical scores, and detailed analysis of what the numbers mean. Results might be reported for individual students or for groups, such as all students in a given district or state who are enrolled in fourth grade in a given year. Results might address just one or a few performance expectations or the expectations for an entire year of schooling. A report might place one or a group of students along a numerical scale or just indicate whether the student or students met particular performance criteria. A report might include samples of an individual student’s work or anonymous examples of student work that illustrate different levels of performance.
People will be able to use assessment results to take the steps that can improve student learning if those results are presented in a way that is clear and accessible. This means that the reports will need to be designed to meet the needs of different groups—from students, teachers, and parents to state and national policy makers.
Reports will need to include information that explains what was being assessed as well as what sorts of inferences can and cannot be made based on the results. For example, the results of an assessment that asks students to carry out a series of complex tasks—say, designing an investigation, carrying it out, and analyzing and graphing the results—cannot be reported as a single score. Instead, the report should identify the aspects of the set of tasks on which the student or group of students demonstrated competency and where students need further instruction.
As these changes develop, it will be especially important to help parents understand how assessment is evolving and why these changes are important. Your reports to parents are likely to change as you adapt instruction and assessment. Time that you invest in helping your students and their parents learn how they can use new kinds of information will support the changes you are making.
An integrated science assessment system uses a variety of assessments that can provide the different sorts of information about students’ learning that students themselves, teachers, parents, administrators, the school community, and policy makers need. It includes (1) assessments used in the classroom as part of day-to-day instruction, (2) assessments designed for monitoring purposes, and (3) indicators of the quality of instruction and students’ access to opportunities to learn and do science.
Clear and accessible reporting of results is as important as the assessments themselves. Reports should explain what was being assessed as well as what sorts of inferences can and cannot be made based on the results. In this way each of the parties who use information about student learning can use it in taking action to improve student learning
All of what we’ve described in this book will take time to implement. Even if your district and state have been among the first to embrace the new approach to science education, the changes will probably occur in stages. There are many ways that you as an individual educator, together with colleagues in your school and district, can participate in and support these changes. We close this chapter with ideas about a few of them.2
The student population in the United States grows more diverse every day. Students bring all they have learned from the customs and orientations of their cultural communities to their formal and informal science learning. These are
important resources for classroom instruction. At the same time, it can be challenging to teach in a way that meets the needs of all the students in a class and to assess the learning of students who are not fluent in English or have learning disabilities in a way that is both fair and accurate. A science classroom in which students are actively engaged in doing science is one that presents varied assessment opportunities, but it also intensifies an educator’s responsibility to think carefully about ways to value and respect the cultural diversity students bring and how these assets interact with their learning.
Ideas for making sure that instruction engages all students—and is accessible to all—are just as important for new types of assessment.
Build on the Diverse Experiences That Students Bring from Their Homes and Communities
Many aspects of students’ everyday lives may offer a pathway to science. Cooking, gardening, tinkering with cars or equipment, spending time in natural settings, doing household chores, tracing family heritage, or traveling to see relatives who live in a different climate are just a few of the activities that can provide opportunities to ask scientific questions and test hypotheses. You can take advantage of your students’ experiences by linking them to what you are teaching and by encouraging them to draw on their skills and experience as they solve problems. Assessments that are a natural part of instruction are opportunities to do the same thing.
Be Aware of Cultural Differences That Can Affect Learning
Experiences that are everyday occurrences for some kids might be unfamiliar to others. Be wary of assuming that all your students will understand a reference or an analogy or will draw the same inferences while doing a task set in a particular context. This does not mean you have to confine classroom discussion to topics and contexts every student already knows well, however. As you get acquainted with the cultural experiences your students bring to the science classroom, you can adjust your instruction and provide additional context and information where it is
needed. One way to do this is to allow students to share and discuss their relevant experiences with each other so that they can understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses and more effectively work together on projects.
You can also use discussion and other tactics to verify that all students understand the examples or analogies you are using. For example, some students may not have seen the ocean, have had the chance to bake with yeast, or recognize other references that might seem commonplace. Through discussion you can check that the ideas are working as you intended and also see whether your students can suggest experiences and phenomena they’ve observed that might illustrate a point. This issue is even more important in assessments, where you might get an inaccurate picture of what students understand if the context is unfamiliar to them.
Consider That the Specialized Language of Science Can Be a Particular Challenge for Students Who Are Not Fluent in English
If the testing situation uses scientific terms they haven’t yet learned, any students—no matter their fluency in English—will have trouble showing what they know about a particular topic. But a native English speaker may have an advantage in figuring out an unfamiliar term from the context and may have had more opportunities to hear science terms in other contexts than a student who is still learning English. Learning terminology is an important part of science, and helping students understand it is part of good instruction. At the same time, it is important to be sure that an assessment measures only the practices and understanding being targeted. If proficiency in a specialized terminology is not a learning goal in the lesson or unit, then assessment scoring should leave room for students who may, for example, mix up related terminology but still demonstrate understanding of the concepts.
You can use spot assessments to check whether your students are learning terms they need to proceed with a unit—and sometimes you’ll want to remind them. The “Climate Change” example in Chapter 4, for instance, illustrates how you might want to give students supports such as definitions while they are working through the stages of a task. Providing a definition at a time when remembering it is not critical to the task is a way to keep exposing your students to the idea. As they encounter and use a term multiple times in different contexts, they can learn it more naturally than if you ask them to memorize it as part of a list. A good assessment will not depend on students’ facility with terminology when the goal is to find out what they know about disciplinary core ideas and how well they can use scientific practices.
Provide a Variety of Ways for Students to Demonstrate What They Have Learned, to Reflect the Different Ways Students Learn
Part of making assessments fair is providing multiple ways for students to demonstrate what they know and can do. Assessing something as complex as doing science requires a lot of different kinds of tasks. Giving your students multiple ways to show what they know is also more equitable, and it will give you a more accurate and complete picture of what each of them understands. There will be assessment opportunities in the components of what students are doing: discussing their ideas, collaborating with their classmates, drawing models of what they are thinking, writing out their arguments, designing experiments, and exploring ways to represent data. You can also look for nonverbal ways through which your students can share their ideas: for example, younger students might act out a process or cycle, or they could represent it using clay or small toys. Some older students might create a drawing or a diagram more easily than a written narrative.
Perhaps the greatest resource you have is your professional colleagues. Sharing ideas, questions, resources, and experiences with other educators who are adapting their own instruction and assessment practices can have multiple benefits. By joining or helping to establish a professional learning community with this common interest, you can do the following.
Exchange New Ideas and Experiences
Working together may make it easier to adapt activities you are already using. You might start by breaking out elements that you can score or by clustering several activities you are already using so that they work together to give you more information. Exploring comparisons between traditional and new kinds of assessments, such as the one we discussed in Chapter 3, may help you and your colleagues more easily identify assessment opportunities in activities you currently are using. Sharing your ideas and experiences can be an important part of your own reflection on your practice.
Look for other resources that may support your efforts to adapt your assessment practice. For instance, your school may be located near a wetland, a forest, or a body of water. You may live in a region that gets a lot of snow or is in a desert ecosystem. Your community may be wrestling with issues related to pollution, water supply, development, or an invasive or superabundant species. Any of these circumstances might provide an opportunity for activities that that will allow your students to act as scientists: making observations, recording data, analyzing what
they have learned, and using what they know about core ideas to develop and test hypotheses. You can use these activities to assess your students’ capacity to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom in a new setting. Your colleagues can also be a source of ideas about and access to these sorts of resources.
Share Information About Performance Expectations for Your Students
As you develop new assessment tasks and rubrics for scoring them, you will need as much information as you can get about how students learn within a particular unit as well as their common misconceptions and stumbling blocks in that unit. Reviewing student work together with your colleagues can help you solidify your understanding and identify examples that reflect levels or stages of performance.
Build Support for and Understanding of the Changes You Hope to Make
Your collaboration with colleagues will help make the changes you are pursuing more visible within your school and district. You and your colleagues can influence priorities and decisions in your school, district, and state by volunteering and speaking up about your efforts and what you are learning. Opportunities to participate in professional activities such as setting standards, scoring, or curriculum development are all chances to learn from others and to share what you have learned in your classroom.
This book has emphasized the value of collaborative professional learning communities to help you and your colleagues build new assessment approaches into your instruction.3 Networks of colleagues provide safe arenas in which to generate ideas, try new things, and compare notes about results. Making these changes will be a process for everyone, and you will want to revise what you are doing as you learn from your experience and your students’ responses. Every chance you have to participate in curriculum and assessment design and development teams, assessment scoring sessions, and other collaborative efforts will be an opportunity to learn and to share what you have learned from the exploration you do in your classroom.
School and district leaders can support these changes by providing teachers with opportunities for professional development and collaboration. Teachers who are building the new assessment approach into their practice will be learning, for example, how to:
- use classroom discourse as a means to assess student thinking;
- orchestrate classroom discussion to weave together the three dimensions of science learning;
- use specific discussion strategies to support the practice of argumentation;
- identify students’ problematic ways of reasoning about disciplinary core ideas and problematic aspects of their participation in practices;
- identify the interests and experiences students bring, so they can build on them throughout instruction;
- understand typical student ideas about a topic and the various problematic alternate conceptions that students are likely to hold; and
- develop models for interpreting students’ responses to tasks or questions.
One theme in the new vision for science learning is that students should develop a growing appreciation for the relationships among topics and ideas. A crosscutting concept is one that applies in numerous science disciplines and helps explain many different phenomena. Making these types of connections is important not only within the very broad fields of science and engineering but across other fields as well. Students’ abilities to develop reasoned arguments and to marshal evidence and to express their ideas clearly are developed in social studies and English/language arts classes as well as in science classes. They also need to learn how the application of a practice such as argumentation is different in different contexts. Their approaches to thinking about the ethical and social questions raised by many science issues are developed in other classes as well.
The Common Core State Standards and other new standards explicitly call for establishing links across subjects to help students see both how ideas and practices in one area can be applied in another and how study of each enriches them. Because forging these sorts of links is important to the new three-dimensional vision for science education, it is important for science assessment too.
We close Seeing Students Learn Science with one last example—this one developed by a teacher. It illustrates a number of the ideas discussed in this book. It engages students directly in doing science and targets interactions between practices and crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas, and it reflects connections across disciplines, among them mathematics, English/language arts, technology, art, and music.
Level Grade 6
Assesses PRACTICES—Planning and carrying out investigations; Analyzing and interpreting data
CROSSCUTTING CONCEPTS—Cause and effect, energy and matter
DISCIPLINARY CORE IDEAS—The role of water in Earth’s surface processes [ESS2C]
This example illustrates how a phenomenon in a particular area—in this case, a place that gets a lot of snow during the winter—can be the basis for a unit in which a range of activities are used for instruction and assessment and also to link the science learning to learning in other disciplines—a key goal of the Common Core State Standards.
Students Synthesizing Snow data in Natural Objective Ways (SSSNOW) is an interdisciplinary project developed for sixth graders (Huff and Lange, 2010). Teachers can adapt the basic outlines of this multiple-week project on the physical properties of snow that is designed for schools in snowy climates.
Students begin with some orientation and data collection. Teachers are given access to a variety of online and other resources about weather that they can use to deepen students’ understanding of, for example, how moving air masses affect cloud cover. Students can use inexpensive equipment to record outdoor temperatures and snowpack measurements. They conduct more elaborate field investigations as the unit progresses and the snowpack accumulates, digging a snow pit they can use to expose the entire thickness of the snow for study.
Math comes into play as students calculate the density of snow and compare it to that of other materials. They use measures of central tendency both to find ranges in temperatures and to find the mean temperature in a snowpack. Experimentation and research yield information about other properties of snow, including the structure of snow crystals, classification of types of snow, and so on. Students use microscopes to inspect and compare snow samples that vary in age and position in the snowpack.
Students record and analyze their data records. Formative assessments are built into stages of the unit as students discuss their findings and conclusions and use their data to develop explanations for what they have observed. Through videoconferencing technology they share their findings and conclusions and engage in dialogue with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists. This experience encourages students to consider alternative explanations and refine their thinking.
The connections across disciplines are designed to encourage students to expand their appreciation for what they are observing and how they are thinking about it, for example using nonlinguistic ways to
represent what they are learning. Elements such as the ones shown in Table 5-1 are woven together over the course of the unit.
TABLE 5-1 Snow-Related Activities from Different Disciplines
|Discipline||Snow-Related Learning Targets/Activities|
The teacher who developed this example worked with a colleague to accomplish several different goals with this project. In addition to linking the science activities to objectives in other classes, they also:
- engaged their students in a three-dimensional learning unit that provided the opportunity to collect and analyze data and to draw on many resources as they explored a complex set of questions about water, weather, and energy;
- included formative assessment opportunities that helped them guide their students and also helped the students shape their own research; and
- took advantage of the natural world around their school to get their students outside and learning about phenomena they could observe.
This sort of collaboration will be a critical part of the gradual move to three-dimensional instruction and assessment, and it demonstrates how closely linked these transitions are. Assessment is a fundamental part of instruction. As districts and states adopt new standards, new assessments will be just as important. All the changes associated with adapting to three-dimensional science learning will need to work as a system—and the classroom is at the center of that system. What teachers do every day is essential to students’ learning. As you integrate assessment and instruction in your own classroom you will be actively supporting a new, three-dimensional vision of how students learn science.
- Adapting the way you weave assessment into instruction in your classroom will contribute to any moves your district and state make toward developing an integrated science assessment system in which useful results are reported to the parties that need them: students, teachers, parents, administrators, and policy makers.
- A science assessment system includes (1) classroom assessments, (2) large-scale assessments used for monitoring, and (3) other indicators of the quality of instruction. It provides accessible results to all who need information about student learning.
- You can contribute to these changes by taking full advantage of cultural differences among your students. Encourage them to share experiences through both verbal (discussions and written assignments) and nonverbal (drawing and diagramming) activities. Factor in non-native English speakers’ challenges as you design classroom activities that will be used to assess learning.
- You can also contribute by collaborating with your colleagues: exchanging ideas and feedback, finding interdisciplinary connections, and working together to build support for the changes you hope to make in your classroom and beyond.
This page intentionally left blank.