Three Dimensional Assessments for the NGSS

Adopting three dimensional assessments is key to truly transitioning your curriculum and instruction to the NGSS.Three dimensional assessments, traditional tests, and added sugar… what’s the scoop?


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 realize 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 teach HOW we assess — or what we’re measuring. Like differentiating between added and naturally occurring sugars, we need to differentiate 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!)


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.)


What are three dimensional assessments?


The term three-dimensional refers to the three components of the Next Generation Standards: the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Crosscutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices.  Therefore, three dimensional assessments are assessment tools – exams, projects, performance tasks, etc — that integrate ALL THREE DIMENSIONS of the NGSS. 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.


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 are presented that students use to answer a series of questions that often build on each other (or at the very least, connect to each other).

  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 ideas that connect all the sciences together). 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 gives 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, 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.


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

That is a topic for next time! Subscribe to the blog or follow me on Facebook to get a notification each time a new article is published.

And if you’re serious about transitioning your curriculum and instruction to the NGSS, check out the NGSS Your Science Class course available at the Science Teacher Tribe.  Join our community to get the 12 module course with video workshops, audio tracks, ready-to-use resources, and a growing library of NGSS-aligned sample lessons and activities, plus personal support and guidance.

Get support for your NGSS transition at the Science Teacher Tribe.