Brian Reiser Co-Authors National Report for New K-12 Science Assessments

Brian Reiser

As a member of a National Research Council committee reviewing U.S. science education in grades K-12, professor Brian Reiser co-authored a report recommending new types of science assessments. These assessments will be needed to measure student learning once the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are implemented, the report says. 

The tests that states currently use emphasize factual knowledge and were not designed to assess the type of understanding envisioned by the standards, which emphasize depth of knowledge based on the ability to integrate core content with science and engineering practices. 

The report describes a new system of assessments that should be developed, and it offers examples of the types of tasks and questions that could assess student knowledge as detailed in the standards. To monitor progress in meeting the standards, states should use information both from state-administered tests and from classroom-based assessments, as well as information about students’ opportunity to learn in the ways laid out in the science standards, according to the committee that wrote the report.

“The Next Generation Science Standards present challenges for assessment, but they are also an opportunity to address longstanding limitations with current approaches,” says committee co-chair James Pellegrino of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Current assessments tend to ask students to define the scientific method absent specific content; assessments under NGSS should ask students to demonstrate that they understand aspects of scientific reasoning by applying particular science practices.”

The Next Generation Science Standards, which have been adopted by eight states so far, describe “performance expectations” for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. The standards support science learning structured around three dimensions: scientific and engineering practices; core ideas of the science and engineering disciplines; and crosscutting concepts, such as “cause and effect” and “energy and matter.” The intent is that in classroom teaching and learning, these three dimensions would be integrated: for example, the students would always learn by engaging in one or more scientific practices in the context of core ideas, and their advancement would be mapped out in terms of a learning progression. 

To assess students’ mastery and integration of these three dimensions, a variety of question formats will be needed, the report says. Questions may require students to supply an answer, produce a product, or perform an activity. “Formative” assessments would help teachers see how students are progressing and make instructional decisions; and “monitoring assessments” would measure science learning on a broader scale.

For the monitoring tests, the full breadth and depth of NGSS expectations for a given grade level cannot be covered with a single large-scale test, the report says. The committee recommends that the information from external “on-demand” assessments (that is, assessments that are administered at a time mandated by the state) be supplemented with information gathered from classroom-embedded assessments (that is, assessments that are administered at a time determined by the district or school that fits the instructional sequence in the classroom) to fully assess whether performance expectations have been met. 

Assessments should be developed using a “bottom up” rather than a “top down” approach, the report says. In this way, the learning progression would begin with designing instruction and assessments for the classroom, perhaps integrated into instructional units, and then move toward assessment that meets the needs for monitoring purposes, including accountability.

In addition to using assessments to monitor students’ progress, states should monitor indicators of "opportunity to learn," according to the report. This indicator assesses the extent to which students have the opportunity to learn science in the way called for in the standards and the extent to which schools have the resources they need to support learning.

In 2011 the National Research Council released A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, which served as the foundation for the Next Generation Science Standards. Reiser was one of the co-authors of this report.

Reiser, a professor in the Learning Sciences program at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy, researches how to make scientific practices such as argumentation, explanation, and modeling meaningful and effective for classroom teachers and students. This design research investigates the cognitive and social interaction elements of learning environments supporting scientific practices, and design principles for technology-infused curricula that embed science learning in investigations of contextualized data-rich problems.

The National Research Council is a nonprofit institution that provides expert advice on some of the most pressing challenges facing the nation and the world. Part of the National Academies, which was founded by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to investigate science, the organization produces reports that shape policies and advance the pursuit of science. The assessment study was sponsored by the Bechtel Corp., Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. 

By National Research Council, Adapted by SESP
Last Modified: 3/5/14