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Delaware prepares for next generation science assessment

Delaware will lead the nation in changing the way students are assessed in science.


Science requires one to integrate content knowledge with application, yet students often are assessed on state tests primarily on their factual knowledge. As the First State eyes a new science assessment, Delaware educators are using this as an opportunity to revamp how the state measures students’ science mastery.


The next generation of tests will go beyond multiple choice and short answer assessments to include hybrid models where students manipulate materials and data offline then provide responses on a computerized platform.


“Educators in the field have led the call for this change and innovation,” Secretary of Education Steve Godowsky said. “The leadership of the Science Coalition – which unifies educators, district and charter leaders, and representatives from the higher education and business communities – has been key to the development of the state’s plan.”


Appoquinimink Superintendent Matt Burrows, who also heads the Delaware Chief School Officers Association, said he supports the plan.


“With the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, our focus has been on real-world application of science. Students are not just learning science, they are ‘doing science.’ This is an opportunity to align our testing with the changes that have been happening in our classrooms,” he said.


This academic year will be used to develop the type of tasks and questions to be included on the new assessment and prepare the design of a field test to be operational in the 2017-18 school year. The new assessment, which will replace the state’s current Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System (DCAS) science exam for grades 5, 8 and 10, will launch in the 2018-19 school year.


New standards


Delaware adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as the state’s science content standards in October 2013. NGSS set expectations for what students should know by the end of every grade level in the four domains of science: physical science; life science; earth and space science; and engineering, technology and science application.


NGSS differ significantly from previous content standards in that they consist of three parts: disciplinary core ideas (content), science and engineering practices, and cross-cutting concepts. Previous standards often expressed these dimensions as separate entities, leading to their separation in both instruction and assessment. The integration of rigorous content and application reflects how science is practiced in the real world.


Under the new standards, science and engineering practices and cross-cutting concepts are designed so they are not taught in a vacuum.


“The standards encourage integration between core concepts throughout each year, and science concepts also build coherently across kindergarten to high school,” said Michael Watson, the state’s chief academic officer. “The Next Generation Science Standards focus on a smaller set of disciplinary core ideas that all students should know by the time they graduate from high school. This focus allows for a deeper understanding and application.”

Delaware science educators have been preparing for the transition to the new standards with much of the work led at the building level by Next Generation Teacher Leaders in schools across the state. Kit-based lessons aligned to the new standards for grades 5, 8 and 10 and developed by the teacher leaders -- who also collaborated with peers in Rhode Island -- are being piloted this fall in schools across the state.


Now is also an opportunity to change how the standards are assessed.


Comprehensive system


Delaware envisions a comprehensive science assessment system in grades 3 to 10, consisting of three distinct types of assessment. Under this system, throughout the academic year students in grades 3 to 10 will take teacher-developed quizzes that will provide educators and students information on learning in real time. These will be teacher-developed in Delaware with the intention of becoming part of an open access item bank that teachers can use at their discretion. Primarily formative in nature, these assessments will be numerous, short, and administered at the discretion of each teacher.


Students will also take tests shortly after the completion of each instructional unit. In each grade, the academic school year is divided into three to four units, each of which is aligned to a specific content area. Each end-of-unit test is meant to provide information on student learning of the NGSS content in each unit for the purposes of instruction (e.g., determining if additional instruction on previously instructed topics is needed) and evaluation (e.g., informing curriculum adoption, adaptation, and modification) at classroom, school, district and state levels. These tests are meant to be used as instructional assessments as part of the typical instructional year – in other words, teachers can use them in the place of current classroom unit tests.


Finally, students in grades 5, 8, and 10 (biology) will also complete a performance task meant to capture students’ learning of the content instructed during the entire year in greater depth than on the end-of-unit tests. This assessment is meant to capture the ways that students integrate, transfer and apply science knowledge and skills learned during the year. This assessment also will be used to meet federal requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Results from the end-of-unit assessments may be combined with those of performance task to produce an overall, summative score for each student.


“The new assessment program will allow us to really embrace the goals of the Next Generation Science Standards by encouraging a hands-on and analytical approach to science,” said Nicholas Baker, supervisor of curriculum and instruction for the Colonial School District and Science Coalition member. “Not only are the standards providing the opportunity for students to become scientists and embrace scientific principals in a hands-on environment, but the new assessment program will encourage students to apply those same principles on a formal assessment program. Importantly to me, this will also allow science teachers across the state the opportunity to have useful data to plan from and help diagnose areas for growth and improvement.”


Capital School District Supervisor of Instruction and Science Coalition member Gene Montano said he is “excited to see the teacher and specialist teams come together with (outside support) to develop embedded instructional assessments used in real-time learning. These will be connected to the end-of-unit assessments and performance tasks in grades 5, 8 and 10, which Delaware teachers will help develop and have input on during the review process.


“A great deal of work around NGSS units has been completed by many teachers and specialists these past few years, and we continue to have a better focus on our next steps … to help students with a deeper understanding of science and its applications beyond the classroom,” he said.

Alison May
(302) 735-4006