CSTA Classroom Science

Hands-On Performance Assessment – An Effective Formative Assessment Strategy

By Deborah Tucker and Grant Gardner



Are you looking for ways to assess 3D learning? Tools that assess the NGSS practices? Have you considered hands-on performance assessment? Do you know that California once implemented hands-on tasks in statewide testing?

We Were Ahead of Our Time
You may remember the year (and some of you may have been in elementary school at the time) when California administered hands-on performance tasks during the mid-1990’s as part of the state-wide spring testing program called CLAS. Every 5th grade, 8th grade, and 10th grade student in California conducted hands-on investigations along with selected-response and constructed-response items.

Students’ conceptual knowledge and mastery of science practices were assessed. Then, we used the term “science process skills” from the 1990 California Framework. We also used the term “theme” (also from the 1990 CA Framework) to indicate crosscutting concepts.

Everyone loved it! The students asked, “Is this a test?” Teachers, in large scale scoring sessions, were trained and calibrated to score student work. Our belief at the time was to move testing “beyond the bubble.”

Rationale for using hands-on performance assessment
Our thinking, over two decades ago, was that assessment should look like instruction. If we wanted students to be able to “do” science, the push should be to have students “do” science on the assessment. The common belief then was WYTIWYG; that is, what you test is what you get. Another way to say, assessment should mirror instruction.

For more than 20 years, long before there were NGSS Performance Expectations, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has incorporated hands-on science tasks (referred to as HOTs) in their science program. HOTs allow student to demonstrate how well they are able to plan and conduct scientific investigations, reason through complex problems, and apply their knowledge in real-world contexts.

If you are interested in reviewing some sample hands-on performance tasks, visit the NAEP website.

The NRC framework writers realized the need to move beyond multiple-choice items. Assessments that are primarily selected-response items “can measure some kinds of conceptual knowledge…but they do not adequately measure other kinds of achievements, such as the formulation of scientific explanations or communication of scientific understanding.”

The Front Matter of the NGSS also speaks to students’ ability to be able to “do” science and promotes teacher use of multiple strategies for assessment. “Performance expectations are the assessable statements of what students should know and be able to do. Some states consider these performance expectations alone to be “the standards,” while other states also include the content of the three foundation boxes and connections to be included in “the standard.” The writing team is neutral on that issue. The essential point is that all students should be held accountable for demonstrating their achievement of all PEs, which are written to allow for multiple means of assessment.”

From the 2013 report, Developing Assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards (National Academy Press), we are further encouraged to design assessment tasks which provide evidence of students’ ability to use the practices, to apply their knowledge of crosscutting concepts, and to draw on their understanding of disciplinary core ideas, all in the context of addressing specific problems or answering certain questions…“New kinds of science assessments are needed to support the new vision and understanding of students’ science learning.”

The belief that science instruction and assessment should be student-centered and hands-on has been with Deborah since graduate school. She was fortunate to attend graduate school in a program housed at the Lawrence Hall of Science. The leader of the program was Dr. Larry Lowery. He instilled in her then the importance of not only keeping the students’ cognitive levels in mind during lesson planning, but also having students use their senses as much as possible. In some of Dr. Lowery’s later writings (e.g., articles in Developing Minds: A resource book for teaching thinking, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development; 179-180; 242), he speaks to this point:

“We can learn from books if our experiential foundation is well established. To learn geometry, we must have experience handling geometric forms and comparing them for similarities and differences. To learn about electricity, we must explore relationships among cells, wires, and bulbs. To read a word on a page, we must first have a concept for the word within ourselves."

Expert teachers never forget that it is only by using the senses while interacting with an environment that students come to recognize patterns and learn about the world around them.

Firsthand, or concrete learning involves “manipulations of real objects, not abstractions of reality. One cannot say enough about the value of firsthand experiences, which activate a multiplicity of our five senses, the only avenues into the brain. The brain receives and stores, in effect, a record of the neural activity in the sensory and motor systems from each sense when an individual interacts with the environment. Each record is a pattern of connections among neurons, patterns that can be reactivated to re-create the component parts of the experience later.”

Sources for Hands-on Performance Assessment Tasks
You are able to find examples and released hands-on tasks on several websites. In addition to the NAEP website discussed above, look for examples on the following websites: Pals at SRI, the Connecticut Department of Education, the New York Department of Education, and the Rhode Island Department of Education. Pictured below are two elementary tasks.

http://www.classroomscience.org/eccs09012010/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Tucker1-300x248.png
© 2016 Assessment Services, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 
Figure 1.  Student measuring the distance needed to “pull” the paper clip toward the magnet. From NECAP task “Playground Trash”.[/caption] 
 
http://www.classroomscience.org/eccs09012010/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Tucker2-300x225.png
 © 2016 Assessment Services, Inc.. All Rights Reserved.
Figure 2. Student uses a “beak” to grab “food items.” From NECAP task “Bird Beaks and Survival.”[/caption] 

Just as with the proverbial baby and bath water, don’t throw hands-on instruction and assessment out with the technology-enhanced assessment strategies. The new vision calls for multiple means of assessment. Remember, “… it is only by using the senses while interacting with an environment that students come to … learn about the world around them.”

To learn more about and experience hands-on performance assessment, attend Short Course #2 “Using Hands-on Performance Assessment in 6-8 Classrooms: Assessing Student Mastery of the Science Practices, DCIs, and CCSS-ELA” at the CSTA conference October 21-23, 2016, in Palm Springs.



Deborah Tucker is an Independent Science Education Consultant, and Grant Gardner is the President – CEO of Assessment Services, Inc. They can be contacted at http://assessmen


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