Changing the Way We View Assessments
The next step in our process of transitioning to MS NGSS was to figure out how we were going to assess the PEs. During our sequencing PDs, we tried our best to find a way to connect and integrate the standards in a way that told a story or by wrapping the standards around big ideas. We tried to use engaging events and phenomena like asteroid impacts and powerful Tsunami waves to help integrate the science domains while also intending to generate student interest. We did our best to brainstorm activities that we thought might reach the requirements of the PEs with the level of knowledge we had at the time about the NGSS.
One thing we did know was that the assessments were going to look very different than the traditional multiple choice test assessments we had been using for many years. We knew we were shifting towards student products as evidence of what students know and are able to do. We also knew that we were to bundle the PEs whenever possible and that the assessment tasks should combine all three dimensions (DCIs, CCCs, and SEPs) in a way that makes students act more like scientists who deal with real world issues instead of just note takers who memorize vocabulary terms. The Evidence Statements were used later to provide additional details about these "observable and measurable components that, if met, will satisfy NGSS performance expectations".
When I first took a deep dive into the evidence statements, I was completely overwhelmed to find out how much was actually going to be required of students in order to meet the PEs. The assessment tasks we had brainstormed only met a fraction of what was described in the evidence statements. I soon realized that one task was not going to reach the requirements of the PEs. I also quickly realized that in order for students to reach the highest levels of critical thinking as described within the evidence statements, that the assessment tasks would need to be scaffolded.
Within my last three years of being a digital learning coach for science and STEM middle school classrooms, I noticed that scaffolding and differentiating learning activities was difficult for most teachers. I am the first to admit that differentiating curriculum is difficult, especially with large class sizes. Due to this, I felt the need to build the scaffolded instruction within the assessment tasks to help teachers move in this direction. These scaffolds led to the tiered approach to assessing the degree of student learning and achievement of the PEs within each assessment task.
A Tiered and Differentiated Approach
The tiered approach is based on student mastery of the necessary skills needed to move forward within the assessment task. If a student is unable to demonstrate the basics skills required to participate in the assessment task, then they will be unsuccessful in completing that assessment task. For years, many teachers have moved the entire class through a series of lessons based on a time frame. Pressure from administrators made us feel that we had to get through all the curriculum with all students by a certain date. In this situation, time controlled when students moved forward and how far they got rather than their abilities and skill level. Often, struggling students fail or give up because we have not given them the extra support, time or resources needed to move out of the outermost zone of proximal development (ZPD).
Using this knowledge of ZPD to help scaffold curriculum, a mastery-based tiered system of implementing assessment tasks was born. Each assessment task contained four parts, with each part needing to be mastered in order for a student to move on to the next part.
As you can see, a 4-point grading scale is suggested for this type of tiered assessment task. This came about after two weeks of working with teachers and administrators to figure out an equitable way to assign a grade to a student who participates in this type of assessment. The main question was, what do you put in a grade book for a student who only finished 3 of the 4 parts? This is a complex topic and I will dedicate the next blog post to explaining one suggested way to grade this type of assessment, how current teachers have adapted this suggested method to meet their own classroom needs, and revisions we will most likely need to make in the future as we continue to research and learn more about mastery and standards based grading.
Work in Progress
There is obvious room for growth in what we are building in middle school classrooms in TUSD. It is well known that this design process is iterative and we will revise these assessment tasks many times over the next several years. It had only been announced that we were taking the integrated approach to teaching science in middle school just nine months prior to the start of the 2016-2017 school year when we were expected to begin transitioning. Although some still feel that we are just piloting NGSS this year and have time to figure it out as we go, the reality is that the shift is too radical for middle school science teachers to develop lessons as they have in the past. The integrated approach to teaching science is new for us, the content is shifting into new grade levels, the pedagogy is shifting to a more differentiated approach, the assessments are shifting to a more performance based approach, and we are all still learning how to effectively and efficiently integrate technology into the curriculum. The teachers needed guidance and support.
By the time I had finished digitizing the sequences, I had about two weeks of summer left before a curriculum team was getting together to begin developing lessons for the first few months of the school year. Within this time, I wrote six tiered assessment tasks for Unit 1 (two for each grade level) to give them some idea of what these assessment tasks might look like. I realize that the way I went about designing these assessment tasks is not the prescribed process that I have been reading in the many articles published on this topic. However, the teachers needed a game plan and this was our starting place.
Cari WIlliams is a Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) for the Tustin Unified School District in Southern California. She holds a MS in Instructional Design and Technology from Cal State Fullerton and works on the side as a consultant writing science and STEAM curriculum and training teachers. After working for 12 years in the classroom as a middle school science and STEAM teacher, she transitioned into the role of Digital Learning Coach in 2013. In this role, Cari helped teachers innovate curriculum and shift pedagogies through the integration of educational technologies and practices found within the NGSS. Her most current work as a TOSA is focussed on engineering design in robotics, computer science, and makerspaces. She is an official VEX Robotics event partner hosting tournaments for teams from around Southern California as well as leading 28 robotics programs servicing over 100 teams in the Tustin Unified School District. Although her expertise has taken her deep into STEAM education, she remains passionate and engaged in helping teachers transition to the NGSS through participating as a Science Peer Review Panelist for Achieve and acting as a Professional Learning Facilitator and Instructional Coach for NSTA.