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“I Made This for You”: The Evolution of Formative Assessment in STEM

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For generations of science students, assessment looked something roughly like this: a teacher gave the class information, and then the class was expected to give the information back to the teacher in the form of a quiz, test, or checkpoint question at the door. These forms of assessments could be intimidating and didn’t take into account the ways students had practiced communicating their understanding in the preceding lessons. The way assessment was implemented often felt exclusionary for some students, especially those who struggled with historically limited modalities of teaching.

Reimagining Assessment

For many years, science teachers knew there was a problem with traditional approaches to assessment, so they started to change. They were successful in changing how they taught in the classroom—many began to implement more inquiry-driven investigations and put a bigger emphasis on real-world applications of scientific concepts. Still, there was a disconnect between classroom activity and assessment.

Teachers were transforming the way they taught, but not the way they tested.

“Teachers were transforming the way they taught, but not the way they tested,” explained Jessica Holman, Professional Learning Facilitator at National Science Teaching Association (NSTA). 

For example, students might spend the class doing an experiment, but then the quiz at the end of class would rely on their ability to recite the periodic table. The teaching had changed, but the assessment had stayed the same. 

Next Generation Science Standards logo

In 2011, there was a state-led effort to form a more equitable set of standards. The states worked with organizations such as the National Research Council, NSTA, and others to help ensure that the standards developed served students in the best way possible. The result of this effort was the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which have since been adopted by many states across the country.

“With NGSS, formative assessment still feels the same, but how we’re asking has changed,” Holman said. Now, a science teacher can ask students to build a model as assessment rather than assign a pop quiz or ask a checkpoint question. 

Since the release of the NGSS in 2013, formative assessment has experienced a transformation. Unlike other standards, NGSS reimagines formative assessment by putting an emphasis on teachers meeting students at their level—not the other way around. For Holman, this was the difference that made NGSS feel so revolutionary. 

“I remember when I walked into a classroom where NGSS was being implemented,” recalled Holman. “It felt like a real lightning spark for me because it was obvious that the NGSS had considered all kids. It was empowering as a Black woman, because I wanted to give kids the opportunity to see themselves as scientists—something I did not get to experience while in school.” 

Empowering Students

Every student has the same question: why am I doing this? When educators prioritize different kinds of instruction that include modeling and investigations of real-world applications of scientific concepts, students see themselves as having an active role in the classroom. Moreover, students don’t just see themselves as guests because they are doing the work of scientists.

NGSS asks students and educators to focus on mastering, not memorization.

“NGSS asks students and educators to focus on mastering, not memorization,” Holman said. 

The classroom becomes a more equitable place when students are assessed on their ability to apply scientific concepts rather than their ability to recite them. 

Building Assessment for Your Students

Perhaps the biggest change NGSS brought was encouraging educators to build lessons with their students—not just the general idea of students, but the students who come into class every day. This kind of thoughtful, intentional design makes lessons meaningful. 

Holman provided a great example of this. Students in Brooklyn, New York, may not appreciate an assignment about studying the night sky as much as kids living in rural Kentucky. It’s hard to see stars in Brooklyn; in rural Kentucky, the stars are much easier to see.  

Students feel really empowered when they are part of the assessment, when they get to explain what they actually know.

“Students feel really empowered when they are part of the assessment, when they get to explain what they actually know,” Holman said. This is the key to equitable learning—giving students the opportunity to see themselves. “It’s important for lessons and assessment to say, ‘I considered you when I designed this lesson. When I made this, I thought of you.’”

Learn more about NGSS
Learn more about Jessica Holman’s work with NSTA.

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