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Classroom Assessment: A Tool for Learning

Kathy Long, Brian Campbell, Linda De Lucchi, Larry Malone, and Linda Woodward, FOSS Project, Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California at Berkeley
March 17, 2008 | Assessment

When teachers first begin teaching FOSS, the learning curve can be a challenge. If teachers are making the change from a textbook to an activity-based curriculum, the first year is spent learning content, working out timing issues, preparing materials, and coming to grips with student and kit management. As teachers become comfortable with the mechanics of teaching FOSS, they may focus their creative energy on implementing science notebooks. Students use their science notebooks to record and organize data, define vocabulary words, and write conclusions drawn from investigations. By the third year of using FOSS, the logistics have been mastered, and teachers are ready to focus on student learning. That’s the point where assessment becomes an important part of the curriculum.

Through the ASK (Assessing Science Knowledge) Project, funded by the National Science Foundation (2003–2008), FOSS developers, working with teachers across the country, have been developing an assessment system that will be a prominent part of the next revision of the FOSS curriculum for grades 3–6. This article provides a preview of the assessment system that is to come, as well as some suggestions that you can try out in your classroom right now.

The ASK assessment system includes assessment tools that serve two specific purposes, both of which are called for in the National Research Council report Knowing What Students Know (2000). First, ASK provides assessments that teachers can use on a daily basis in their classrooms to improve their teaching. Second, ASK provides valid and reliable assessments, closely aligned to the curriculum, that can be used in conjunction with standardized tests (which are usually not well aligned with a specific curriculum) to monitor and qualify students’ science achievement.

The ASK Formative Assessment Cycle for a FOSS Investigation

The everyday, formative ASK assessments are called embedded assessments. They are used on a daily basis to diagnose strengths and weaknesses in student learning as a module develops. These assessments take the form of informal observation of student activity and work products that students complete in the process of doing the science investigations (student sheets, notebook entries, and response sheets). Teachers use these work products to determine whether or not students understand the content presented on a particular day.

The valid and reliable assessments are called benchmark assessments. These are new assessments that include a survey (pretest given before instruction begins), I-Checks (given after each investigation is completed), and a posttest (given at the end of the module). Benchmark assessments are primarily summative in nature but have powerful formative value as well. Embedded assessments are used for diagnostic purposes and are never graded, whereas benchmark assessments can be used for grading purposes as well as sources of information to improve instruction.

Formative Assessment in the Classroom

Teaching is a linear progression, but learning is not. Lessons are taught, one after another, with embedded assessment occurring throughout. Sometimes teachers find that their students have not learned the concepts completely. At this point they must make decisions about what next steps to take. Do I move on to the next part of the investigation and work individually with those students who need help, or do I stop and do some remediation with the whole class?

The diagram above presents a graphic representation of a flow of actions and decisions that a teacher might encounter while teaching a FOSS module. The inner circle (green) represents the typical arc of one investigation, starting with Getting Ready, followed by Guiding the Investigation and Reflection. Embedded assessment is integrated seamlessly into this process. The dashed blue line shows how assessment information may lead to a remedial activity being inserted into the instructional sequence. The outer circle (red) represents the arc of the I-Check benchmark assessment at the end of each investigation. The purple arrow represents the transition from the last part of the investigation to the I-Check benchmark assessment. This model of teaching with formative assessment has evolved over the course of the ASK Project. Detailed descriptions of each phase of the cycle follow.

  • Get Ready. The first step in teaching a FOSS lesson is getting ready—preparing the equipment, previewing the sequence of the activity, and choosing an embedded assessment that will be used as evidence of learning. The embedded assessment can be a student sheet, a notebook entry, or a response sheet—any piece of student work that will give you evidence that students have learned the concept on which you are focusing. Informal observation during the activity is useful for assessing an element of inquiry that occurs as part of doing the activity, but we have come to rely more on written work than observation for evidence of students’ understanding about concepts. The important thing to remember about assessment at this point is that you need to choose something for embedded assessment that you believe will give you information about the most important content being taught in the part of the investigation you are about to teach.

  • Guide the Investigation. Students participate in the active investigation outlined in the teacher guide. In the ASK Project, science notebooks are an integral part of active investigation. Students record the focus question, use notebook sheets (reduced to half size so they fit in bound composition books) to record data, and write conclusions at the end of each lesson (for example, stating a claim supported by evidence or creating a “rule” that can be applied to other situations). This is the usual routine followed by all FOSS teachers using the ©2000 or ©2005 editions with the addition of science notebooks. A new Science Notebooks folio is now available from Delta for teachers wanting to begin using science notebooks in their classrooms. (See the article titled “New from FOSS in 2008” on page 1 of this newsletter.)

  • Reflect on Student Work. At the end of each lesson, the teacher reviews the student work that will reveal whether or not students understand the content. A significant challenge for the teacher is finding the time to review the student work thoughtfully. If time is limited, we encourage teachers to spend 10 minutes reviewing student work looking for evidence of the specific learning identified during planning. They should then take 5 minutes to reflect on how they will use their insights about student learning to guide the next step in instruction. While it is probably most helpful when teachers take the time to give each student individual feedback, this is often not possible. What’s critically important is that teachers spend some time reviewing student work and have some sense of the knowledge students have constructed so they can do something about it immediately.

  • Plan Next Steps. If students have not fully comprehended the content, then a next-step strategy (some way to clarify or remediate) is required. One next-step strategy can be as simple as moving on to the next part of the investigation, making sure to focus on the particular concept that may still be confusing to some students. This often makes sense when the next part of an investigation focuses on the same concept as the one just completed. A second next-step strategy may require no more than a few minutes of discussion at the beginning of the next class session to clarify conclusions before moving on to the next part. On rare occasions, a teacher may find it necessary to take an entire class session to reteach critical content using a new context and helping students apply what they should have already learned.

    When students understand the content, it is time to move on to the next part of the investigation. The cycle represented by green arrows is repeated until all parts of the investigation have been completed, which might take two weeks.

  • Prepare for I-Check. When all of the parts of an investigation have been completed, it is time for an end-of-investigation I-Check. Before administering the I-Check, teachers may want to give their students a chance to go through their notebooks to highlight the important things that they have learned. For example, a teacher may suggest that each group work together to make a list of three VIPs (Very Important Points) they find in their notebooks for the investigation they just completed or from the beginning of the module. Doing a cumulative review can help students differentiate the “rules” they have been developing across several investigations. In the FOSS Magnetism and Electricity Module, for example, students often confuse materials that stick to magnets with materials that conduct electricity. Reviewing both rules together and discussing their similarities and differences help students clarify their thinking. Review sessions should occur at least a day before the I-Check is given, not on the same day.

  • Administer the I-Check. The I-Check is administered to students just like any other test. Teachers might think about using these assessments as practice for state or district tests, following the same rules for administration. If that is not a concern, teachers should feel free to read the questions aloud for students who may have trouble reading them on their own. Teachers often ask if it’s okay for students to use their notebooks when taking the I-Check. We recommend that the students not use their notebooks when taking the test, but do use their notebooks when they are self-assessing the next day. We want to find out if students understand the content and can apply it, not just if they can give right answers.

  • Code the I-Check. The Benchmark Assessment folio is used to code the I-Checks. Each item has a separate coding guide and is coded as 0–2, 0–3, or 0–4. The code range is based on the complexity of the item and the range of evidence of student progress it provides. The progress map below shows how we conceptualize this continuum in the ASK Project.

    Code Level Description
    4 Strategic Students have mastered the conceptual level. They are now working on applying knowledge of [module content] to new and more sophisticated contexts.
    3 Conceptual Students have essentially mastered the vocabulary and simple facts about [module content] (the recognition level). At the conceptual level, students are working on putting these pieces of knowledge together to see relationships among concepts to demonstrate a broader understanding. To get to the next level (strategic), students need to master these relationships and begin to apply them in new contexts.
    2 Recognition Students are beginning to use scientific vocabulary and know some basic facts about [module content]. To get to the next level (conceptual), they need to begin connecting pieces of knowledge to form a broader understanding.
    1 Notions Students use their everyday experiences to explain phenomena. To get to the next level (recognition), students need to use scientific vocabulary and learn some basic facts about [module content].

    If an assessment item asks students to recall the definition of a specific word or a simple statement of fact, the highest code they can receive is a 2. On the other hand, if the item is complex and requires students to apply what they have learned to a new context, the highest code for that item will be a 4. A code of 0 indicates that the student made no attempt. We expect all students to understand the content at the conceptual level.

    As teachers code the I-Checks, they record the codes, but not on the students’ papers. Students will get their completed I-Checks back with no teacher marks on them. The unmarked I-Checks will be used in the next step, Do Self-Assessment. We are currently in the process of working with the Berkeley Evaluation and Assessment Research Center to develop a computer program that will make it easy for teachers to input student codes and then print reports that will describe what students know and what they still need to work on.

  • Do Self-Assessment. The usual course of action for taking next steps after the I-Check is to conduct a self-assessment session. This is an opportunity for students to check their own work. (I-Check, in fact, stands for “I check my own work”.) To get ready for the self-assessment session, the teacher reviews the notes she/he made as she/he was coding the assessments (or reviews the reports printed from the computer software) and determines which items presented problems for students. The goal is to choose an item or two that will challenge students’ thinking and provide an opportunity for them to discuss their thinking with each other.

    Often self-assessment focuses on a constructed-response item. The self-assessment strategies guide students to confirm, correct, and complete their answers to the prompt. Other self-assessment strategies are used with multiple-choice questions. For example, when significant numbers of students chose different answers (A, B, C, or D), students convene in different corners of the room, As in one corner, Bs in another, and so on. Each group needs to come up with an argument that will convince students in the other corners that their answer is the correct one. If during the process students realize that a different answer might be better, they are allowed to migrate to another corner and help that group work on their argument. The key to self-assessment is that teachers are not simply reading back the correct answers to students, but students are reflecting on their understanding of the content and making necessary adjustments.

    As mentioned earlier, the I-Checks are used primarily as a measure of student achievement—as a summative assessment. The major source of diagnostic information accrues from the embedded assessments. Nevertheless, the I-Check results may reveal some incorrect or incomplete student thinking that requires additional instructional attention.

  • Go on to Next Investigation. Steps 1–7 in the assessment cycle are repeated for each investigation. At the end of the last investigation there is a final benchmark assessment called the module posttest. This posttest is also used as the survey (pretest) before beginning instruction in the module.

Lessons Learned

If you’re serious about increasing student achievement in science, the most important thing you can do is look at and reflect on student work on a daily basis and then act on what you see. Understanding science is complicated, and it can be messy. It takes many experiences and discussions to get all of the pieces organized into functional, conceptually sound mental models. The FOSS curriculum provides tried-and-true strategies for teaching science well, but no curriculum can anticipate the individual prior knowledge and experiences that children bring to the table. No curriculum can totally anticipate the interactions that will occur in the classroom. The best way to counteract the unexpected is through assessment practices.


Your best source of information about student thinking is their written work—principally their science notebooks. Thus, it is important that when students are writing in their notebooks, they do so uninterrupted. We found that many teachers like to walk around the room, observing and providing feedback as students are writing/drawing. This introduces confounding factors into the process. First, teachers tend to offer suggestions for correcting student errors. That means when they actually read the student work, the teacher is actually reading her/his thinking and not necessarily what the student was thinking. This leads to the second problem—getting a false positive reading about how well students understand the content. We all want students to succeed and do well, but we can only do that if we have the best information possible about what the students do know. We recommend that students do their own writing without teacher intervention. Teachers look over the work later and provide feedback or plan next steps accordingly. For example, at the beginning of the next session, the teacher leads a class discussion about the recently completed activity. Students draw a line of learning in their science notebook, review their work, and confirm, correct, or complete their entry based on class discussion or interaction.

We found student written work to be more reliable as evidence of students’ content learning than classroom observation. If students know the content well enough, they can usually write or draw enough about it to show their understanding. As a result, many teachers in the ASK Project have adopted a “writing-to-learn” perspective. They no longer think of writing as an obstacle that interferes with students’ thinking, but as another tool for learning. Writing can actually help students clarify their thinking. When they write, they have to organize their thoughts in new ways. By doing so, it often becomes apparent what students know and what they still need to learn. Adopting this perspective is difficult for many teachers, but it is a challenge worth taking on.

The most gratifying change we have seen in ASK classrooms is the change in culture that can occur. Assessment is no longer seen as the enemy. In fact, students have been known to ask their teachers, “Isn’t time for an I-Check so we can find out how well we are doing?” (When was the last time your students asked you if they could take a test?) Learning has become collaborative rather than competitive. It’s not a terrible thing if a student gets an answer wrong or says “I need some help.” It’s simply an indication that the student recognizes that he needs more information to reach understanding. The relationship between teacher and student changes because students take more responsibility for their own learning. And we have proof that all students can learn. Using assessment as a tool for learning has encouraged the lowest achieving students and has helped to close the achievement gap.

Look for future articles in the FOSS Newsletter on building professional learning communities around classroom assessments.

For more information about the ASK Project, please contact Kathy Long at

Benchmark Assessments

As a result of the ASK Project, each grade 3–6 FOSS module has a valid and reliable benchmark assessment component, which includes the survey (pretest), investigation-specific I-Checks, and a module posttest. With the benchmark assessments, teachers have reliable interim achievement data, and even more importantly, information they can use to remedy student misconceptions or gaps in understanding. If you are an experienced FOSS user and would like to see the benchmark assessments for a particular module, contact your Delta/FOSS sales representative. Also see the article titled “New from FOSS in 2008” on page 1 of this newsletter.