Using Released Test Items to Design Justified Lists and Card Sorts for Science

Assessment seems to be all anyone is talking about in education these days.  Well, okay, a few people might have mentioned school financing, but STAAR, EOC, Reference Documents (the documents previously known as formula charts), and the just-released STAAR sample items… oh you hadn’t heard about those?  Yes, they were released by TEA on September 30, 2011, and can be found online.  And, since I know teachers in tested grades are going to want to look at those, go ahead.  Visit http://www.tea.state.tx.us/student.assessment/staar/ and look them over, then come back and finish this article in which I am going to give suggestions on utilizing standardized questions to design formative assessment experiences which can be integrated into student notebooks.

Standardized assessments serve a purpose in that they help to judge the effectiveness of different curricula and approaches to instruction, districts, and even teachers; but the results often inform us as to which TEKS a group of students or even an individual student have not mastered without providing insight as to what they do not understand or why.  In order to understand students’ thought processes, assessments must be written that allow for open-ended response, problem solving steps to be shown, and for students to be forced to confront common misconceptions side-by-side with the scientifically- based explanation of a phenomena and decide which explanation they hold to be true.  When these types of assessments are conducted throughout the learning process for the benefit of both teacher and student, then we call them formative assessments.  Renowned National Science Teacher Association (NSTA) author Page Keeley in her book Science Formative Assessment: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning, defines formative assessment as “assessment for learning” (Keeley, 2008).  Summative exams such as STAAR are considered to be assessments of learning in that they do not provide learning opportunities to students.  Both types of assessments may provide information that informs curriculum and instruction, but it is how the assessments impact a student that is the key.  In her book Keeley provides 75 Formative Assessment Classroom Techniques (FACTs).   Two types I have chosen to focus on are justified lists and card sorts.

Justified List

One type of formative assessment is the justified list, in which students are presented with a question such as, “Which of the following are producers?” and then a list that might include, “oak tree, mushroom, grass, algae, duckweed, corn, and dog.”  Students are tasked with checking off those things on the list that are considered producers and then asked to, “Write the rule by which you decided if something is a producer or not.”  We could also ask students to write three characteristics they use to determine if something is a producer.  The important task here is that students are examining their thinking about what are examples and non-examples and then explaining and justifying the characteristics they used.  The example I described using producers would be a great formative assessment to go along with TEKS 5.9(B) which is the TEKS assessed in question number 12 of the 2011 5th grade released questions.  Students should recognize and explain that they did not choose a mushroom because it breaks down nutrients from decaying organisms and thus cannot serve as the basis of a food chain. A chemistry example (see question number 1 of the 2011 Chemistry released questions) might be, “Which of the following are considered extensive properties?”

Justified lists can be used as pre-assessments (for example, a biology teacher might ask about producers before beginning a lesson on food webs) or to assess learning after the explanation phase of instruction (as would be the case when a 5th grade teacher uses the producer list).  They can be conducted in tandem with a think, pair, share to allow students to discuss and refine their ideas or they can be integrated into a unit assessment in which case the list should include some new examples the students might not have previously been confronted with.

Integrating justified lists into science notebooks is easy.  The question, justified list and prompt can be made to fit on half a sheet of paper which students can glue or tape into their notebook at the top so the paper can be lifted up and the rule which the student used and their justification can then be written directly on the notebook paper.

In addition to Science Formative Assessment, Keeley has written a series of books entitled Uncovering Student Ideas is Science.  All are available through NSTA at http://www.nsta.org/store/.  An example chapter from one of Keeley’s probe books that includes a justified list can be found online at http://www.nsta.org/store/product_detail.aspx?id=10.2505/9780873552554.  Scroll down just a bit under details and click on the link next to Read Inside.

Card Sort

Another type of formative assessment is a card sort. Card sorts are designed in such a way that students sort a set of cards with either terms or pictures on them into two or more categories.  For example, during an 8th grade lesson utilizing the periodic table students might sort terms such as metallic appearance, non-metal, semiconductors, conductors, non-conductors, etc. onto an outline of the periodic table that has been divided into non-metals, metals, and metalloids such as that seen in the 8th grade 2011 Released Question number 3.  The cards that students sort could also include the symbols or names of some elements they are familiar with and pictures of some of the more common elements.

To really make students think, make the number of cards unequal in each category.  For example have 7 cards belong under non-metals, while only 6 belong under metals.  Another way of making the activity more rigorous is to include cards that will not be used.  When I taught Biology I included two cards that said “Does Not Contain DNA” and four cards that said “Does Contain DNA” for my sort of characteristics and example organisms for the six kingdoms. When students said they seemed to be missing “Does Contain DNA” cards and that they had cards that didn’t belong anywhere (such as the “HIV” card) they were demonstrating understanding and mastery on a higher level than if they had done a one-to-one matching activity.

Card sorts can be integrated into notebooks through questions or stems about why certain cards were put into categories, such as having students complete the statement, “I placed ________________ in the kingdom _____________ because…”  or  “We had the hardest time deciding where ____________ goes because…” You can also make the sort one that students cut apart themselves and then glue into a graphic organizer in their notebook so students can review their written justifications while observing the results of their sort.  Alternatively, you can use pockets where students can replicate the sort and practice on their own.  This is especially useful for more difficult concepts or content that is being introduced for the first time.

Tips for using card sorts:

  • Provide a key so students can check their sorting even if they are away from the classroom
  • Students can work in pairs or small groups
  • Ensure students discuss and reflect on why cards were sorted in certain ways
  • Use sentence stems to ensure English Language Learners participate in these discussions
  • Encourage students to distribute the cards between all members of the group and to take turns placing the cards

Example science card sorts produced by ESC Region XIII are available online at http://www5.esc13.net/science/resources/manipulatives.html.

 

Conclusion

Notice how, regardless of which formative assessment strategy or technique is chosen, it is the way in which the strategy is utilized and the guiding and probing questions asked by the teacher that provide the depth and rigor required by STAAR.  Formative assessments must be developed and designed in such a way that yes, informs instruction, but the main purpose should be for students to recognize and confront their own misunderstandings and begin to correct them.  A quiz, given to students working silently and independently that is then graded by the teacher with the only feedback to the student being a grade, is not considered formative.

Resources:

Keeley, Page. (2008). Science Formative Assessment: 75 practical strategies for linking assessment, instruction, and learning.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

STAAR 2011 Released Test Questions.  Accessed online at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/student.assessment/staar/, October 1, 2011.


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