May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

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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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

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.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). 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.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. 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.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. 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.