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So...Where's the Content? Let Assessment Be Your Guide!

Kathy Long, FOSS Assessment Coordinator, Lawrence Hall of Science
March 06, 2000 | Assessment

"Let assessment be my guide? I don't think so!" you may be saying to yourself. But what you're probably imagining are those standardized tests we subject our students to on a yearly basis. When we talk about assessment in the FOSS 2000© edition for grades three through six, we're talking about something completely different. We're talking about an assessment system that gives you diagnostic information throughout the module. The new assessment system provides a window for you to see more deeply into each student's thinking as well as for you to reflect on your own teaching.

The new FOSS assessments have been reorganized into "assessment" or "progress variables." Specifically, we are looking for students' achievement in three areas: content knowledge, conducting investigations, and building explanations.

  • Content knowledge is the facts and concepts of science that students learn throughout the module.
  • Conducting investigations is the ability to successfully engage in science inquiry.
  • Building explanations refers to the relationships students are building among the content and inquiry they are experiencing. In other words, we want to know what sense students are making of activities and discussions that changes their ideas about how the world works from naive intuitions to scientific understandings.

For example in the Magnetism and Electricity Module, students learn the content knowledge that when an electric current is supplied to an insulated wire wrapped around an iron core, a magnet is produced. This magnet can be turned on and off. Guided by the teacher, students conduct investigations to discover ways to develop their skills by setting up their own tests to find ways to change the strength of the electromagnetism. Students then build explanations about why the strength of the electromagnet changed, given the materials they used, previous content knowledge, and the results of their own inquiry.

We have made an important distinction between formative and summative assessment. Formative assessment is used for diagnostic purposes. You don't wait until the end of a unit to find out if students have developed the concepts you intended. The end of the unit is too late. Formative assessment focuses on learning throughout the module so you can make changes along the way. It also gives you a chance to reflect on your teaching practices. Experience has shown that sometimes we think we have taught something well when in fact it's been clear to us, but not to students.

When I was working on the revision of the FOSS Grades 3–6 program, I taught simple circuits. The students often created short circuits. I pointed out as often as I could that they had constructed a "short" circuit. Later, many students defined a circuit in which two batteries were positioned negative terminal to negative terminal as a short circuit. In this case, there was no flow of electricity, but it was not a short circuit.

Circuit design

What I realized was that I had been pointing out short circuits along the way, but had never really defined what it was. The students on their own had defined it as a circuit that just doesn't work. The definition they needed was that a short circuit is an unintentional circuit that lets current flow past and around the intended circuit. There actually is electricity flowing through the circuit, just not the way the builder had intended. When I recognized this gap, I was able to go back to the students and embed more information into the activities and discussion.

Summative assessment has a different purpose, one that is more evaluative. In this case we're going to make a judgment about whether the students have mastered the objectives or not. FOSS now includes an end-of-module test that includes performance items, multiple-choice/short answer, and narrative items. Portfolio assessment is also suggested to help students reflect on their learning and to provide information that can be shared with parents. This is not to say that summative assessments do not have formative implications as well. Teachers can use the end-of-module tests to help them plan for the following year. Both formative and summative assessments are accompanied by scoring guides and suggestions for things to do if students are still struggling with a particular concept or skill.

Down to practicalities. Where do you find assessment in the teacher guide? You'll find general information in the Assessment folio, located just after the student duplication masters. The folio provides an overview of the assessment system and includes all of the scoring guides for the assessments as well. Duplication masters for assessment materials, such as recording charts and the end-of-module exam, are in a section just after the Assessment folio.

End-of-Module Assessment   Portfolio Assessment   Scoring Guide   Response Sheet

A summary of assessment for each part of an investigation is found in the At-a-Glance Chart (page two and three of each investigation folio). The Materials section lists the materials you'll need for assessment. Any hard-to-get assessment items are included in the kit. Step 2 in each Getting Ready section suggests a strategy for assessment in that part.

And you will find assessment steps in the Guiding the Investigation section for each part. Watch for the assessment icon to show you the way. As you can see, there's been a lot of information about assessment added to the teacher materials. You can't help but think about assessment as you're teaching each module!

We hope that you will find the new assessment system a useful tool in your teaching. You often hear people say about hands-on or activity-based science programs, "Well, the students are having fun, but where's the content?" The content has always been there—just sometimes hard to identify especially for elementary teachers who haven't received enough training in science during their pre-service preparation. We think the assessment component, along with a few changes to the presentation of the investigations in the teacher guide, will help point out where the content is and help teachers better focus their students to develop a deeper understanding of science.