September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 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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CSTA Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. 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.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. 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.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.