Three-Dimensional Assessments For The NGSS Made Simple

Science teachers! Learn the difference between three-dimensional assessments and traditional tests in order to better align your curriculum with the NGSS.

Changing The Way We Teach Science & Assess Learning

Have you noticed lately the “Added Sugar” note on some of the nutrition labels? 

We have kids with allergies, so anytime I buy anything processed, it means checking the label. Some of the labels are now identifying which sugars are occurring naturally in the foods and which sugars are added. I LOVE this idea. We’ve realized that “not all sugar is created equal.” 

The sugars that occur naturally in those dried apple slices are in a different ballpark than the beet sugar and high fructose corn syrup that our stuff is doused in.

What does this have to do with the NGSS? Well, we’ve realized we need to change the way we teach science. The NGSS aren’t just about content and standards — we’re literally changing HOW we teach. This also means we need to change HOW we assess — or what we’re measuring.

Like differentiating between added and naturally occurring sugars, we need to recognize the difference between traditional assessment styles and three-dimensional assessments. And if we want to have a “healthy” NGSS-classroom, we need to cut the traditional “added sugar” assessments.

(So I know that may be a bit of a stretch, but I was trying to think of an example for ya… and it’s grocery shopping day!)

Science teachers! Learn the difference between three-dimensional assessments and traditional tests in order to better align your curriculum with the NGSS.

Why can’t I just use my old assessments?

Well for one, you shouldn’t be teaching the same ol’ facts and figures you’ve been teaching. There’s a good chance that if you’re truly aligning your curriculum to the NGSS, it’s going to mean changes to your content. So whether you embrace 3D assessments or not (you should!), you are likely rewriting past assessments anyway. So let’s make sure you write them the right way!

(PS – Did you know that relying on traditional exams is a RED FLAG that a resource is not aligned to the NGSS? Learn more here.)

Download this Impacts of Invasive Species Assessment Task activity as a three-dimensional assessment for NGSS.

What are three-dimensional assessments?

The term three-dimensional refers to the three components of the Next Generation Standards: 

Therefore, three-dimensional assessments are assessment tools – exams, projects, performance tasks, etc. — that integrate ALL THREE DIMENSIONS of the NGSS with equal (or perhaps roughly equal) emphasis.

A three-dimensional assessment expects students to engage in Science and Engineering Practices to demonstrate their understanding of Disciplinary Core Ideas, using the big ideas in the Crosscutting Concepts to add depth and connectedness to their understanding of the content knowledge.

These assessments are considered to be more robust and accurate measures of student learning compared to traditional assessments that focus on recall and memorization.Oh, and they are built from a specific phenomenon. The great thing about that is it, in many ways, makes these exams unGoogleable. (We chatted about this in the Teaching Science In 3D podcast!)

How are three-dimensional assessments different from traditional assessments?

  1. Structure

Traditional tests and quizzes are typically full of a bunch of questions in random order that address various unit concepts. One question has very little connection to the next (if any at all), and questions can really be completed in any order.

In a three-dimensional assessment, one or several scenarios (phenomena) are presented that students use to complete a task (sometimes broken into a series of prompts or questions that build on each other or in some ways connect).

  1. Question Types

Traditional quizzes and tests are full of true/false, fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice, short answer, or matching questions. While these questions may help you determine the degree to which students understand the Disciplinary Core Ideas (or the “content” chunk), they do not provide students the opportunity to engage in the Science and Engineering Practices.

Three-dimensional assessments require students to apply the science and engineering practices to reveal their understanding about unit concepts (Disciplinary Core Ideas) and Crosscutting Concepts (the big lenses through which we can view content and phenomena). A short answer, multiple choice, or true/false question simply cannot assess whether students know how to analyze and interpret data, construct explanations from evidence, or engage in argumentation.

  1. Assessment

Traditional quizzes and tests typically assign one point per question. These types of questions don’t give students the opportunity to receive feedback (other than a right or wrong checkmark), nor do they differentiate between degrees of difficulty in the questions.

A three-dimensional assessment, by its very nature, generally requires some sort of rubric to assess student performance and understanding. You are assessing both the Science and Engineering Practices (the skills) and Disciplinary Core Ideas (the content), and students will demonstrate a range of performance for both of these. Rubrics can help you quantify student performance more easily and more accurately.

Download this Body Systems Assessment Task as a three-dimensional assessment for NGSS.
Download Deadly Decisions: A Cells & Body Systems Assessment, a three-dimensional performance task for the NGSS.

Is it hard to implement three-dimensional assessments in the classroom?

Implementing three-dimensional assessments in the classroom can be both easy and challenging for teachers, depending on a few factors. Here are some challenges and solutions for you to consider:

  • Familiarity With Three-Dimensional Teaching And Learning:
    Teachers who are not familiar with three-dimensional teaching and learning may find it challenging to implement three-dimensional assessment into their classrooms. They may need to undergo professional development to gain an understanding of what three-dimensional teaching actually is, as well as how to design and administer assessments that truly address three-dimensional learning. But don’t worry – I’m here to help!
  • Curriculum Alignment:
    Three-dimensional assessments require alignment with the curriculum. Teachers need to ensure that the learning goals and objectives of their curriculum are adequately preparing students for three-dimensional assessment tasks. This requires careful planning and preparation, as well as a clear and effective formative assessment system. 
  • Assessment Design:
    Designing effective three-dimensional assessments can be a challenge, especially for teachers who are used to more traditional exams. Three-dimensional assessments require the use of performance-based tasks, open-ended questions, and real-world scenarios (phenomena) that require students to apply their knowledge and skills. The mindset shift this requires can sometimes be a barrier.
  • Time Constraints:
    Three-dimensional assessments may require more time to administer (and potentially grade) than traditional assessments. Teachers may need to plan ahead and allocate enough time for students to complete the assessments. To reduce the demands of grading on educators’ time, teachers can utilize tools like rubrics and checklists. They can also develop student proficiency in self-reflection and peer evaluation and feedback. These approaches not only benefit students’ in the long-run but also reduce demands on the teacher’s limited time and energy.
  • Resources:
    Three-dimensional assessments may require additional resources, such as lab equipment, technology, or other materials. Teachers may need to plan ahead to ensure they have access to the necessary resources.

If you’re serious about transitioning your curriculum and instruction to the NGSS, check out ways you can work with me and get support for your move to three-dimensional, student-driven science!

Ok, sold. But how do I create a three-dimensional assessment!?

I’m glad you asked! Check out my post Creating Assessments for the NGSS: Step By Step Guide for more information.

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Download this Earth-Sun-Moon System and Earth's Tides Assessment Task activity as a three-dimensional assessment for NGSS.
Assess student understanding of the Earth’s tides and the Earth-Sun-Moon system with this engaging performance task.

Learn More About Three-Dimensional Assessments:

Engaging NGSS Assessments: Project Based Learning

Engaging NGSS Assessments: The Instructionally-Embedded Model

Engaging NGSS Assessments: The Performance Task Model

Formative Assessments For NGSS Science Classrooms