Measuring New Science Standards Is Hard. These Projects Aim to Change That

By Stephen Sawchuk — April 10, 2018 2 min read
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About 18 states have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards. And although these shared science expectations have been out for about five years, testing models that fully capture students’ grasp of them have lagged far behind. (So far, only a handful of states have updated their science tests to match.)

The NGSS poses some big technical challenges for the smarty-pants who develop student tests. For one, the NGSS expects students to learn primarily by interacting with phenomena and recording and analyzing data. That’s basically the inverse of how most of us learned science, in which a teacher explained a new concept and, if we were lucky, illustrated it through a lab.

New tests also needs to match the standards’ crosscutting concepts, such as being able to recognize patterns and understand scale and proportion.

Naturally, this all begs for some testing innovation, which is expensive and difficult work. Now, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has begun a new project to craft model test items related to the standards’ energy practices.

The project, funded by a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences, will involve the creation of “scenario based” tasks that illustrate the concepts of the transfer and conservation of energy, thermal energy transfer and dissipation, and energy and chemical reactions. Each scenario will require students to interact with a phenomenon, answering both multiple-choice questions and questions that require students to respond to prompts.

It’s an evolution of sorts for the AAAS, which had already made available some test items and related research available on a website. This earlier project, which was funded by both the IES and the National Science Foundation, focused only on multiple-choice items.

Creating New Science Assessment Tasks

Right now, the group is in the beginning stages of thinking through what these scenarios might look like and how students will interact with them—for example, by drawing or modeling, graphing, or writing a paragraph. Ultimately, the tasks could help influence how states approach their own testing programs.

“The new assessments are trying to do more than understand what students know; it’s to see how well they can use what they know to explain and make sense of phenomena,” said Cari Herrmann Abell, a senior research associate at the the AAAS.

AAAS is not the only group experimenting in this area. There’s Next Generation Science Assessment, a collaborative of scholars from several universities and research organizations, who are also designing innovative science assessment tasks for teachers to use. (You can sign up to see some examples on their website.)

The AAAS already has about 200 teachers signed up to help pilot the tasks it develops with their students, and give feedback on how they worked in the classroom.

“I think what it says is that teachers have an interest in helping to better assessments. They care about this,” said Herrmann Abell. “This is an opportunity for teachers to influence future assessments and for them to have some input into how they are formatted and used in the future, and I think that’s an opportunity they don’t get all that often.”

The first assessment tasks should be released publicly later this year, so stay tuned.

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.