Engaging NGSS Assessments: The Performance Task Model

Test days typically aren’t considered fun days. They’re typically not your most engaging tasks. For the most part, we approach assessment as a necessary (maybe a little) evil that we have to do to ensure our students learned.  So we line our desks up in rows, we pass out our Number 2 pencils, and we put up posters with big rules like NO TALKING. NO BOOKS. NO PHONES. So on and so forth.


But assessments don’t ACTUALLY have to be that bad.  Assessments can even be engaging if you design them carefully.  In this series of blog posts, I will be sharing how I frame assessment tasks to engage students in enjoyable learning activities while still fully meeting the skills and content mastery described in the Performance Expectations and Evidence Statements.


We’ll start this week with a more “traditional” performance task approach but discuss how you can still make these tasks engaging all the same. Over the next few weeks, we will examine an instructional-embedded assessment approach, as well as a project-based (or problem-based) learning approach.


Body Invaders: Body Systems Assessment

The culminating assessment for my Body Invaders unit that covers cells and body systems (MS-LS1-1, MS-LS1-2, and MS-LS1-3) is a hybrid between a more traditional NGSS-aligned performance task and a highly engaging project that could be completed individually or as a group.  In the first task, students are presented with the assessment scenario a fictional flu epidemic is making its way across the globe. The students are tasked with helping the public understand the virus and how it invades and impacts the body.  

Cells Assessment

This part of the assessment is heavy on writing and modeling.  Students are asked to examine organisms like viruses, bacteria, and protozoa to collect evidence that supports why viruses are not considered living things. This ties to the standard (fully assessed already earlier in the unit) MS-LS1-1 but brings it back to connect with the unit’s anchor, body invaders.  Students are then modeling how viruses enter eukaryotic organisms, illustrating and describing the organelles relevant to this phenomenon (MS-LS1-2). Again, we are hitting those standards in light of our larger unit phenomenon, although students HAVE already completed an assessment designed to fully address the standard as described in the Evidence Statement.


Lastly, students are given some information about the immune system and nervous system via a short text on the test (although I also provide video resources to supplement, so there’s a bit of a twist there!).  They then use this new information to explain how the virus impacts the body by connecting the work of the immune system, circulatory system, and nervous system to carry out life’s functions (like defending the body from disease). All in all, it is absolutely an NGSS-aligned assessment based on a phenomenon and engaging students in Science and Engineering Practices but it’s also pretty standard and not exactly super-cool-engaging.


Body Invaders: Part Two

The second part of the assessment is where it gets more fun.  Once students have demonstrated their understanding of the basics of cells and body systems, they get to communicate what they have learned in a much more engaging format a press conference.  They also get to interact with and challenge each other by engaging in a press conference style Q&A.  This task kind-of tricks students into writing – because you have to draft your press conference before you deliver it! – while also giving them a venue to demonstrate mastery beyond what they can write down the Q&A, where they can express themselves with a bit more spontaneity.  The Q&A also opens the door to some argumentation, as students can truly examine each other’s arguments and offer real-time feedback.  Overall, the activity is a great blend of a traditional approach – rooted in students demonstrating their mastery of content and skills independent of others or resources – with a more collaborative experience that allows students to go beyond pen and paper to demonstrate high-level understanding and skills.


Tips For Creating Engaging Performance Tasks

First, choose an engaging assessment scenario.  Give students something they WANT to explain. A deadly virus taking over the planet? Sure! Establishing a colony on Mars? Absolutely! Explaining why your potted plant died Eh. It’s a phenomenon, sure.  But it’s kind of boring. (Confession: I’ve used this phenomenon, so I’m not saying EVERY phenomenon you use has to be amazing. But when you want to spice up your summative assessment, go with “cool.”)


Second, don’t give up a written – or at least, in some way, documented – component that students complete independently.  You want to have a record of student ideas and understanding. It may not always be a full question and answer exam. Maybe it’s a drawing with captions – a model.  Maybe it’s an organizer they used to help them prepare for the performance or the discussion. Just make sure students do SOMETHING on their own. This is going to ensure that despite any collaborative work students participate in during the task, they also have at least one component that they have full ownership of and responsibility for.  It IS still an assessment, and you want to make sure you are assessing each and every student (and not simply one eager group member).


Third, add in that “peer element”.  My “peer element” was the press conference and Q&A argumentation session.  I could approach this “peer element” as group work having students work in teams to prepare press conferences.  Or I could approach this “peer element” from a more individualistic perspective, where students are engaging with their peers (presenting to them, discussing with them), but they are still carrying out the tasks alone.  Peer elements don’t have to automatically mean group work, but it should mean that students are interacting with their peers in some form or another. They are reading, critiquing, and discussing each other’s work written, oral presentations, posters, videos, whatever it is.  Instead of an exam that only the student and teacher see, others are invited into the work – adding value to the task by allowing for recognition.


So what do you think? Yes, it IS possible to engage students in stimulating (even enjoyable!) assessment tasks that are still rigorously aligned to the standards. Yes, it takes a bit of planning, but you were going to take that exam anyway.  And yes, you might find your students actually excited to come to school on test day. (Maybe. We can hope?)


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