Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Formative Assessment and the NGSS

Within this post, I am going to focus on formative assessment as an ongoing assessment conducted as part of daily instruction to guide further instruction. They are informal or formal checks of knowledge happening in conjunction with instruction. I’m not considering more summative type assessments such as end-of-unit tests or student projects. Though to be sure, all assessments should be formative, in that the results will be used to guide decision-making in relation to instruction.

Therefore, formative assessments probably won’t be the primary tools that teachers and administrators will look at when determining whether their school as a whole is making progress toward their vision for science education. Instead, they are tools that will influence daily decisions in the classroom, as well as student and/or teacher collaborative conversations. Do I need to provide more time for peer discussion around crafting a procedure for their investigation? Should I include more scaffolding for students to create an effective data table? Notably, they might inform elements reported on a standards-based report card, but more often they will not.

In a classroom using the NRC Framework and/or the Next Generation Science Standards, educators aim to use three-dimensional instruction, including within formative assessment. Two examples of what that could look like in practice might help:

A fifth grade teacher shows students a large syringe full of air. He asks them to discuss with a neighbor what will happen if he plugs the end and pushes down. Students then get to try it out at their table. After a couple minutes of students investigating the phenomenon, the teacher asks them to model the phenomena by drawing a diagram of it, prompting them to consider how to show things they can and cannot see. Why does it get harder to push down? Students create the model on their own first, then discuss their model with a peer, making revisions to their models as desired and considering evidence. The teacher walks around asking probing questions such as, “What are those little circles in your syringe?” “Are they really that big?” “How do they look different before and after pushing down on the syringe?” As he walks, he’s jotting down student names and occasional notes along the continuum of the rubric, which he has on a tablet or clipboard. Students then discuss their models in relation to the portion of a modeling rubric focused on clearly representing all important aspects of the phenomenon (not yet relationships among components). The teacher walks around, looking and listening for important components of models, evidence, and comments to share with the class to illustrate this aspect of modeling. He has a couple pairs of students share theirs, highlighting key criteria from the rubric where students appeared to be struggling. He also keeps his notes in a file with similar notes about students’ abilities with the science and engineering practices to look for progress over time and keep track of areas that need more work. 

Modeling - Subskill
Identifying important components of a scientific model
Student represents the object or occurrence
Student represents the object (etc.) with details (evidence) related to the phenomenon
Students models the phenomenon (etc.) in such a way that it adequately represents important components of it (and not extraneous elements) and evidence gathered
Student models the phenomenon, explains why those are the important components based on evidence, and can analyze why components noted in one model better represent the phenomenon than those in another model
In This Example
Student draws a syringe
Student draws a pushed down syringe with packed little circles inside of it and label of “gas”
Student draws one syringe pulled back and another one pushed down, each has a magnification “bubble” representing the scale of air particles and w/ them being closer together in the pushed down image
Student draws two syringes, as noted in 3, explains the importance of the scale and the particles being closer together, and notes why a model depicting air particles still far apart even with syringe down is more accurate (e.g. evidence – can’t see the air)

As a second example, a high school biology teacher asks students how many types of organisms there are in the world, leaving the question intentionally vague. Students discuss the answer in groups of three (no devices used at this point). The teacher pushes for justification and evidence for quantitative responses, as well as proper vocabulary. After a few minutes, she asks some student groups to share their answers and evidence. And, then she asks, “Why is this diversity of life important?” After sharing ideas with a partner, the whole class discusses it for a few minutes. The teacher then describes an investigation the class will do of “biodiversity” within their school grounds (as part of a larger unit on ecosystems, invasive species, and adaptations). The class goes on a quiet, mindful walk outside where students observe and come up with a testable question(s) about biodiversity on their school grounds and/or in the local area. At the end of the walk, the teacher collects the cards with students’ names and ideas on them. She quickly sorts them into yellow—needs more work, or green—testable; she also jots down some notes as to where students are at in general with this skill and adds it to her assessment file. The next day she anonymously shares a few of her favorite greens and yellows to illustrate key concepts in relation to testable questions, eliciting student ideas first in that conversation.

These formative assessments must be part of a larger cycle of guiding and reflecting on student learning. I like the APEX^ST model described by Thompson, et al., in NSTA’s Nov 2009, Science Teacher:

    APEX^ST model of collaborative inquiry - Thompson et al
  1. Educator teams collaboratively define a vision of student learning. 
  2. They teach and collect evidence of learning. 
  3. They collaboratively analyze student work and other formative evidence of learning (such as conversations) to uncover trends and gaps. 
  4. They reflect how opportunities to learn relate to evidence of student learning.
  5. They make changes, ask new questions, conduct another investigation, etc.

And, then they reflect again on evidence of student learning in light of their vision, considering changes to their vision and objectives as necessary.

One goal here, even in formative assessment, is to be thinking about how student learning fits into the overall picture of three dimensional instruction. Within the gas particle modeling task above, the science/engineering practice (SEP) is modeling, the disciplinary core idea (DCI) is 5-PS1.A—“gases are made from particles too small to see,” and the crosscutting concepts (CCCs) are cause and effect and scale. Within the biodiversity question task, the SEP is asking questions, the DCI is HS-LS2.C—“ecosystem dynamics,” and the CCC is systems and system models (though others could apply).

While those 3D connections are being made overall, the specific, in-the-moment, formative assessment goals here do not capture all three dimensions. In other words, the full task and work throughout the unit will involve students in all dimensions, but this formative snippet is really about one element of one practice in each case. Can students represent important aspects of a phenomenon within a model? Can students generate a testable question? The formative data gathered and acted on could also focus on their understanding of biodiversity or the particle nature of matter (DCIs). Or, it could focus on their ability to reason about the scale of a phenomenon (CCC). But, in this case the teacher kept things simple and more manageable with a specific, narrow goal in mind, which clearly related back to a larger vision for student learning and objectives for this unit. Importantly, while it’s a narrow goal, it’s still a deeper, conceptual learning goal. It’s not just an exit card asking students to regurgitate a fact or plug numbers into a formula.

Examples of assessments (not necessarily exemplars, could be formative or summative)

Formative assessment resources:

Other resources to add? Put them in the comments below!