24- How to Write 3D Formative Assessments with Brendan Fitch

May 3, 2022

Assessments are an important part of the NGSS. But how do you write effective assessments that gauge student understanding of all three dimensions? To answer this question, Erin interviewed Brendan Fitch. In this episode, Brendan discusses his strategy for writing 3d formative assessments.

Brendan is a former teacher and the Co-Founder of the websites Rocket Lit and Inner Orbit. Inner Orbit is an NGSS assessment platform that was built to assess students on the NGSS.

Erin met Brendan at the California Science Teachers Association Conference. She asked him to come on the show because she knows so many teachers struggle with this concept.

What is a 3D formative assessment?

According to Brendan, this isn’t a question that there is a well-understood answer to. And, this can’t be answered in a simple sentence. However, Brendan states that the most important aspect is that students apply what they have learned to a new phenomenon.

How is the assessment 3D?

Students use each of the three dimensions during the assessment. They apply what they’ve learned. This is related to one or more Disciplinary Core Ideas. Then use the skills that you’ve learned. These are the Science and Engineering Practices. Finally, students must make a connection to a Crosscutting Concept.

Students are asked to use their understanding of all three dimensions of the NGSS in order to demonstrate what they’ve learned.

How are phenomena involved in a 3D assessment?

These types of assessments must also include a novel phenomenon that students figure out.

Why does the phenomenon need to be novel?

It is important that students are given a new phenomenon for the assessment. This helps determine if they really understand what they have learned or if they have memorized answers.

White text on turquoise background.  Quote: Really, what we want to do is have them act like scientists and engineers.  - Brenda Fitch on 3D formative assessments
Rather than have students regurgitate the information they’ve learned throughout the unit, its important to have them complete the work of scientists and engineers in their assessments.

“Really, what we want to do is have them act like scientists and engineers. [They] have problems or see things in the world. As a scientist… you know a bunch of things. But when you are looking at something new, you have no idea what it is,” Fitch says. He further explains that students, like scientists, should use all of what they’ve learned to figure it out.

How do you come up with phenomena for assessments?

Fitch explains that phenomena must be very specific. For example, you can’t just use water boiling on a stove. Instead, you’d use something like a mudslide that happened in a specific location. In this case, students would explain why the mudslide happened in this location and not another.

To learn more about what makes good phenomena, and get examples, check out this episode.

Personally, Fitch likes to use GIFs in his assessments because they show a change over time. Also, he believes that these visuals are more appealing and engaging to students.

He starts by doing searches on GIPHY or YouTube for ideas related to the content. From there, he does research in order to fully come up with an explanation for the phenomena. Often, during his research, he realizes that the phenomenon simply doesn’t work and has to start over. He continues this process until he finds an engaging scenario that relates to all three dimensions he is trying to assess.

Tools for Creating 3D Formative Assessments

Once you’ve chosen a good phenomenon, it’s time to start making your assessments. There are several tools that Fitch recommends using.

NGSS Evidence Statements

The NGSS Evidence Statements provide additional information about each performance expectation. They break down each PE into components that need to be assessed. So, these are valuable tools when creating assessments.

Fitch uses the evidence statements to determine which pieces of background knowledge students have when they come into the assessment. He admits they aren’t shouldn’t be used as a checklist for an assessment. However, they make a good starting guide.

He explains that the evidence statements are written in a bit of a progression. This means that the tasks written in the evidence statement get more complex as you go down the list. He looks at these pieces one at a time and starts to create related questions that assess all three dimensions.

NSTA Matrices for the 3 Dimensions

Once they’ve created some initial assessment questions, Fitch’s team checks the DCI, SEP, and CCC matrices from the NSTA. Each of these explains the progressions of the standards from one grade level to the next.

According to Fitch, many teacher-created assessments have questions that fall outside of the grade-level band that they are trying to assess. So, these tools are vital for keeping his team on track.

Of course, it’s okay to have a question that addresses standards outside of the grade band. This helps teachers understand where their students fall in the progression. However, this must be done intentionally and with a specific goal in mind. Often, he sees teachers doing this without noticing.

Using the Achieve Task Annotation Site

The Task Annotation Project in Science (TAPS) was created to explain how students demonstrate progress toward three-dimensional standards.

According to achieve, TAPS was designed to

1) provide examples of three-dimensional assessments.

2) bring to light information that was gained by looking across grades, domains, and tasks.

Click here to view the Achieve Task Annotation site.

How do you create 3d formative assessments that cover all three dimensions?

Fitch admits this is tricky. But, it’s almost impossible to do if you are assessing multiple dimensions within a single question. So, he recommends writing multiple questions associated with a given phenomenon. That way, you can target specific dimensions.

Also, this method helps to determine where your students are having trouble. If there are multiple elements to the same question, it’s difficult to determine why they are missing the question.

Instead, writing targeted questions makes it easier to determine if students were lacking content knowledge or skills.

Finally, he says that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with multiple-choice questions. In fact, these are helpful when trying to tease out exactly what a student is struggling with. However, these should be used in conjunction with other types of questions to fully understand students’ abilities.

Learn More About 3D Formative Assessments

If you would like to work with Brendan Fitch, Inner Orbit offers a free trial of their resources. You can use the chat feature on the Inner Orbit Website or contact Brendan at

Here are some other episodes and blog posts we think are helpful: