September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

Hands-On Performance Assessment – An Effective Formative Assessment Strategy

Posted: Friday, May 20th, 2016

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.

© 2016 Assessment Services, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

© 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”.


© 2016 Assessment Services, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Figure 2. Student uses a “beak” to grab “food items.” From NECAP task “Bird Beaks and Survival.” 

© 2016 Assessment Services, Inc.. All Rights Reserved.
Figure 2. Student uses a “beak” to grab “food items.” From NECAP task “Bird Beaks and Survival.”

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

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

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California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.