Science Assessment for the Next Generation

Science Assessments, NGSS, Next Generation Science Standards, Large-Scale Assessment, Statewide Assessment

More than two dozen states have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)* or similar multi-dimensional standards that set a new direction for science education and assessment. The NGSS integrate Science and Engineering Practices with Disciplinary Core Ideas and Crosscutting Concepts to make up three-dimensional performance expectations (PEs).

Of course, science educators already use scientific practices, teach content, and present big ideas. What’s new, however, is that the NGSS require teachers to integrate those areas in instruction—and they require students to synthesize information differently.

  • Expectations for educators—Multi-dimensional standards require science educators to present opportunities for investigation and application that integrate content, practices, and crosscutting concepts in instruction.
  • Expectations for student performance—Students need to think and act like scientists and engineers, demonstrating understanding and synthesis across all dimensions of the PEs to explain phenomena and find solutions to design problems.

A Challenging Transition

Three factors challenge states’ and educators’ implementation of the standards: lack of time, lack of continuity, and lack of quality resources.

  • Time—These standards are not merely updates or revisions. They require a new way of thinking about instruction and assessment. Busy teachers need time to truly understand them, and to plan and incorporate new methods of instruction and testing, framing each around phenomena. Plus, students need time to work with tasks, scenarios, and approaches that require them to learn and respond differently.
  • Continuity—Many states and districts are using their existing science assessments while they develop assessments aligned to the new standards. Students are being tested on the previous standards at the same time as their classroom learning is changing. It’s especially challenging for teachers to make instruction and assessment cohesive as they address both previous and new sets of standards.
  • Resources—To truly address the standards requires new curriculum and assessment materials; retrofitting previous science content doesn’t cut it. So it’s taking time for developers to offer high quality 3-dimensional content. And it takes time for district and state leaders to evaluate and adopt new approaches. (See “Time,” above!)

Addressing the Challenges

We’ve created a dedicated NGSS Solutions team to help state leaders and educators make the transition. The team takes a two-pronged approach—helping states leverage familiar assessment approaches, while introducing integrated and innovative items—so that change can begin quickly. We help states identify attainable goals to guide the transition, based on each state’s timeline and needs.

At the same time, we’ve developed a model for thoughtfully and authentically assessing the three dimensions of the performance expectations. Our model is based on clusters, which are sets of items that all refer to a single stimulus and scenario. We base our assessment development on these guiding principles:

  • The assessments must engage students by presenting real-world and relevant phenomena.
  • Items and clusters must mirror the kinds of thinking and sequence of actions that students experience when explaining a phenomenon or solving a real problem during classroom science instruction.
  • Each cluster must be based on a “storyline” that has sequence and progression, but the items must function independently of one another.


Download sample NGSS items for grade 5, middle school, and high school.

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To learn more about this approach, see the video posted on this page. You’ll learn how we develop 3-dimensional science content and see a sample cluster.

Support and Innovation

Oklahoma item and test designs: We created new item specifications for Oklahoma that take into account the complexity of three-dimensional instruction and performance expectations in the Oklahoma Academic Standards for Science. In the new science assessments, multiple items in clusters are based on a single performance expectation. The clusters include various item types that collectively assess all three dimensions of the standard. In Spring 2016, students were exposed to field-test items built to the new specs, along with their continuing science assessment. This prepared them to demonstrate their understanding in the first full operational assessment based on the new standards, which took place in Spring 2017.

Maryland high school assessment: Through a contract awarded in Spring 2017, Measured Progress is working with the Maryland State Department of Education and educators across the state to develop a new, NGSS-based high school assessment. The new assessment is based on the item-cluster model, and is administered entirely online. The test design includes a large number of technologically-enhanced items. In addition to in-line choice and “hot-spot” interactions, the assessment will include significantly interactive response types such as drag-and-drop (for modeling) and graphing. The transition from old to new assessment standards began in Spring 2018 with a statewide field test of the new assessment, and will continue with the first operational administrations in 2019.

Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System: The next-generation Massachusetts science assessments are based on multi-dimensional science standards and include both standalone items and item “modules,” which are similar to clusters. Measured Progress and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) are phasing in both the new assessments and online administration. Online item interactions will include drag-and-drop, graphing, and text selection. Pilot testing of the new items took place in Spring 2017 for grades 5 and 8, and in Spring 2018 for high school biology and physics. Full operational implementation will take place in Spring 2019 and Spring 2020, respectively. We’ve been the ESE’s partner on numerous innovative assessment programs for more than 30 years.

NECAP inquiry tasks: We worked with the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) to develop their science assessment starting in 2006. In 2008, we helped introduce groundbreaking “inquiry tasks”—which required group investigation and individual reflection and response. These performance assessments pointed the way toward an integrated model of student response.

In its 2014 report, Developing Assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards, the National Research Council specifically highlighted the NECAP tasks, noting that they “require that students demonstrate science practices and interpret the results”—in essence, providing a model for integrated assessment tasks. (National Research Council. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2014. page 151.)

*NGSS is a registered trademark of Achieve. Neither Achieve nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of this product, and do not endorse it.