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Formative Assessment for Science Through Technology (FAST) Project Underway

FOSS Newsletter Staff
March 07, 2003 | Assessment

Top image: Students record the number of washers used to break the magnetic force in this investigation for the Magnetism and Electricity module.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a three-year grant to Arthur Camins (Hudson Public Schools), Kathy Long (FOSS/LHS), and Marco Molinaro (ScienceVIEW/LHS). The FAST project is researching, developing, and evaluating the effectiveness of a technology-based, formative-assessment system designed to collect classroom observational data, improve elementary teachers’ analysis of written student work, and provide diagnostic suggestions to increase students’ understanding of science concepts and processes. The system will link sets of instructional maps that represent key concepts and the typical development in student thinking connected to specific units of study. These maps will provide teachers with a window into the progression of students’ conceptual development. Software for handheld and desktop computers will enable teachers to collect, organize, and analyze data to determine next-step instructional decisions and provide detailed reports about student achievement.

Prior to preparing the grant proposal, it was recognized that several independent forces were placing increasing demands on teachers and school systems to make use of assessment data to improve student achievement. An initial realization was that most teachers lacked the tools and strategies with the precision necessary to respond to these demands. Recent research in cognitive development highlighted the importance of instruction that builds on students’ prior knowledge. This implies that teachers need to increase their content and pedagogical content knowledge and become more skilled at capturing and understanding students’ developing ideas.

Public pressure for accountability has increased the need for better diagnostic assessments. Fortunately, research strategies for exploring student thinking and technological tools to more effectively collect and represent this information for teachers are now available. Building on the ongoing successful work of Dr. James Minstrell with secondary students (and a consulting partner on the FAST project), FAST is conducting research activities to respond to the instructional and assessment needs at the elementary level by addressing the following questions.


Students carefully count and record the number of washers in the force.

  • What are the typical conceptual linkages, pre-conceptions, confusions, and developmental hierarchies of young students (elementary age) for specific science content and investigative processes?
  • How can these be represented in a formative assessment system that uses technology to make the system accessible and useful to elementary school teachers?
  • How can teachers use this assessment system to gain more insight into student thinking, their own content knowledge, and their instructional practices?
  • How is student achievement impacted when teachers use a formative assessment system in conjunction with exemplary elementary science curriculum?

In academic year 2002–03, the FAST project staff are creating the instructional maps, developing some of the next-step strategies, and looking for the right hardware that will make data gathering in the classroom a reasonable task. The plan for fall 2003 is to have a working system to pilot with the FOSS Magnetism and Electricity Module that will include the instructional maps, hardware to gather the data, desktop software to compile the data in usable ways, and next-step strategies for teachers to test. The same components for the Mixtures and Solutions Module will be developed beginning next year.

Given that this is a proof-of-concept study, work will be limited to these two modules. But if all goes well, the project staff is hoping to include other modules in the future. Watch for progress reports of the FAST project in future FOSS newsletters.