89: 3 Mistakes You Are Making With Your NGSS Tests

July 27, 2021

NGSS aligned tests are very different from traditional assessments. The three-dimensional nature of the standards makes them challenging to assess. Are you making one of these common mistakes on your summative assessments?

Don’t worry.  The fixes are simple.  

Mistake #1: Your NGSS tests focus too heavily on the DCI.

Traditional tests focus heavily on content knowledge.  Skills and application are left out.  Often, teachers continue to over-emphasize knowledge even after they have shifted to NGSS. 

Like the standards themselves, our assessments should be three-dimensional. Tests should not just focus on fact-based disciplinary core ideas.  Instead, they should also include skills and application.

Sometimes, the format of the test is to blame. Tests that focus on the DCI are often multiple-choice. They don’t require students to use practices such as modeling or argumentation. So, traditional-style test questions show up more often.

More often than not, vocabulary is also over-emphasized. For example, many test questions ask students to match terms with definitions. Or, the questions require that students understand specific words.

You might be over-emphasizing the DCI, even if your tests aren’t multiple-choice.

Sometimes, we see test questions that require students to write or draw. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they meet the intent of the NGSS.

For example, a question may ask students to draw the rock cycle. Or, they are tasked with explaining the water cycle. But, this doesn’t really require the use of the practices.

If students do well when they just memorize the facts, you are probably overemphasizing the DCI. 

Another clue is when you are concerned about your students cheating on the test. If students can easily cheat, it’s likely that your test is too heavily focused on facts.

Mistake #2: You aren’t using phenomena in your NGSS tests.

The solution to mistake #1 is simple. Start using phenomena in your assessments. But, most teachers are still missing this piece.

When you use a phenomenon in your assessment, you ask students to apply their understanding to a new context. This makes it possible to assess students on their ability to use the Science and Engineering Practices to make sense of phenomena.

The phenomenon that is used in the assessment should be different than the phenomena used in the storyline. Ask students to apply their understanding to a given phenomenon to see what they really know. Without a unique phenomenon, it’s difficult to assess student learning. Instead, it’s difficult to tell if students learned or if they just memorized answers.

However, when you ask them to apply their learning to a phenomenon, what they have learned becomes very clear.

Phenomena-based assessments make it easier to offer “retakes”.

Often, we see teachers in science teacher forums asking about test retakes. With traditional assessments, redoing a test is potentially problematic. When the questions are simple, there is generally a right and wrong answer. 

Therefore, when you hand back a test it’s likely that students just memorize the answers.  Then, when they retake the test, their new score is reflective of how much they are able to memorize rather than what they have learned.

Some teachers resolve this issue by only giving students partial credit for tests that are retaken. So, students only receive a partial benefit for redoing their tests.

But, when you use phenomena in your assessments, the answers are often unique. So, this makes it possible for the teacher to provide feedback and allow students to continue the assessment without worrying that their result has been compromised.  

Mistake #3: You aren’t incorporating the Science and Engineering Practices

The science and engineering practices are used to make sense of phenomena.  They are the skills that scientists use to make sense of the natural world.  In your NGSS aligned class, students use the practices in the same way.

 As previously stated, it’s important to evaluate more than just knowledge. These essential skills belong on the assessment as well.     

How to improve your NGSS Tests

First, it’s important to take a look at your current assessments.  Evaluate them to see where you may be falling short.  

Then, start looking for phenomena for your assessment.  If you need help, use the CAST item specifications.  Though this resource was designed for California, it can be used in any state.  There is an item specification for each performance expectation.  Each item specification includes potential phenomena.  

Click here to find the CAST Item Specifications.  

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