George Lucas Educational Foundation

Using Skills to Grade Proficiency in Science

Proficiency scales provide an excellent way to evaluate students on their scientific knowledge and skills.

May 24, 2023
Hero Images / iStock

“Are we preparing students to enter into and succeed in STEM fields?” This question haunted me while meeting at weekly professional learning communities to discuss curriculum and assessments. As science educators, we acknowledge that science is more than a mere accumulation of facts. The discipline should foster our students’ scientific thinking skills, improving their capacity to engage in scientific inquiry and reason with evidence.

To achieve this goal, I needed to equip my students with a core set of knowledge and skills that they could use to engage in scientific inquiry. The combination of knowledge and skills would enable students to become scientists who could potentially contribute to the discovery of new knowledge.

The Next Generation Science Standards identify these skills as the science and engineering practices (SEPs). To instruct and assess the eight SEPs, one of the most effective approaches is evidence-based grading (EBG), which emphasizes the development of proficiency in these transferable skills—applicable not only in science but also across other disciplines and professions.

Science teachers frequently ask, how can we provide instruction and assessment that focuses on both content and skills, and how will we assess and provide feedback on science-specific skills in a meaningful and efficient way?

The EBG model and proficiency scales, which are a graduation of a skill and learning target, empower educators to fuse the practices and scientific content, enhancing student learning, rigor, and teacher clarity of proficiency.

Utilizing Proficiency Scales

By leveraging SEPs to drive instruction, I was able to effectively use proficiency scales in conjunction with clear success criteria to assess students’ proficiency in both the skill and science content. Instruction became focused on learning content through the SEPs, giving a greater purpose to learning science.

The learning environment became student centered, using the SEPs to guide instructional activities. As a result, students became more engaged and utilized the proficiency scales to track their learning progress. Conversations transitioned from “What points do I need to make up to get a better grade?” to “What do I need to learn to show proficiency?”

This represents a significant revolution in the fields of instruction, assessment, and feedback, as educators must now prioritize the explicit instruction of both scientific concepts and SEPs. Science education has entered a paradigm shift, wherein the emphasis is placed on the extensive utilization of scientific practices, while the scientific concepts serve as interchangeable components that evolve throughout the skill-building process.

Practical Application

In my biology classroom during our atom structure unit, I used SEP6 Constructing Explanations to assess my students on explaining how the structure of DNA determines the structure and function of proteins.

I was able to preassess their skill in SEP6 and protein synthesis knowledge based on a four-level proficiency scale:

Level 1: Developing Proficiency. I attempt to construct explanations.

Level 2: Approaching Proficiency. I can construct explanations using some success criteria.

Level 3: Meets Proficiency. I can construct explanations using all success criteria: accurate claims, accurate and relevant evidence, and the accurate application of scientific content or disciplinary core ideas in reasoning.

Level 4: Exceeds Proficiency. In addition to proficiency, I can make connections to unfamiliar contexts and/or related science concepts.

Next Steps

Following the preassessment, I designed lessons for my students based on the success criteria and their current levels of proficiency. I explained to them where they were at on the proficiency scale and what success criteria they needed to refine in order to be proficient in SEP6 and protein synthesis.

After they learned and practiced the success criteria, I formatively assessed my students based on the same proficiency scale and scientific content. Students would then receive feedback based on the success criteria on the proficiency scale.

A student who scored a one because they lacked evidence and scientific content would receive feedback to include accurate evidence that would support their claim and what specific scientific content their reasoning lacked. This student would fix their formative assessment and then get additional practice in using evidence to support claims and reasoning.

A student who scored a two because they lacked scientific content in their reasoning would receive feedback on the specific scientific content that their reasoning lacked. This student would make changes to their formative assessment and then get additional practice on the concepts of protein synthesis, including transcription, translation, and function of protein shape.

A student who scored a three would receive feedback to continue to do research making connections to unfamiliar content and/or related science concepts.

Student Agency

In my classroom, students used their formative assessment feedback to gauge their proficiency levels, thereby taking more control of their own learning journey.

Students identified areas for improvement: Did they need to strengthen their ability to write a claim, evidence, and reasoning; or did they need to strengthen their knowledge of the scientific content; or did they need to strengthen areas of both skill and content? This process increased the expected level of student performance, as my students were engaged in acquiring skills and scientific knowledge beyond the traditional context.

An inability of teachers to adapt to this new way of teaching science will disenfranchise students and impair their opportunities to enter into science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields with not only the knowledge, but the skill set to be scientists. By embracing this transformative approach to science education, educators can cultivate a new generation of skilled and versatile scientists who will shape a brighter future for our world.

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  • Assessment
  • Science
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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