Energy Assessments in the Spotlight

Project 2061 researchers are producing new knowledge and tools for assessing students' understanding of energy.

Given the central role that energy plays in every aspect of modern life, finding out what students know about energy concepts is critical. Researchers at Project 2061 have been responding to that need by creating new knowledge and resources that can serve the science education community. Here is a brief round-up of their recent activities.

New Grant to Develop NGSS-Aligned Energy Assessments

With a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), a Project 2061 team of science and education researchers has been developing a set of tests for measuring what students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels know about energy. With more accurate data on what students do and do not know about specific energy concepts and about the common misconceptions they might have, teachers have a powerful tool they can use to adapt their instruction to fit the needs of their students. And students themselves can use the data to monitor their own learning.

Building on this work, the Project 2061 team has just been awarded a new grant from IES to develop assessments designed to support the three-dimensional learning called for in Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Principal investigator Cari Herrmann-Abell and her colleagues plan to expand on their previous efforts to develop multiple-choice test items by developing a set of constructed or open-ended response items that can be used in combination with the multiple-choice items to measure students’ understanding of core disciplinary ideas, science practices, and crosscutting concepts--the three dimensions of science learning that are central to the vision of NGSS. Eventually, they will compare the effectiveness of both types of assessment items in measuring students’ understanding.

“Our goal is to provide some good models of assessments that can reveal what students know about energy-related disciplinary core ideas and how well they can use those ideas along with science practices and crosscutting concepts to make sense of energy-related phenomena,” said Herrmann-Abell.

Sharing Results with Education Researchers

The Project 2061 research team presented their findings this spring at meetings of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST) and the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in San Antonio, TX.

Developing and validating an instrument for determining how students make progress in their energy learning from elementary through middle and high school was the focus of a paper presented at the NARST meeting.  The assessment instrument is designed to measure students’ understanding of energy at basic, intermediate, and advanced levels and draws on a bank of 372 multiple choice items targeting 14 different key ideas about energy forms, transformations, and transfers. Read the full paper here.

A study comparing results from computer-based versus paper-and-pencil tests of students’ energy knowledge was presented at the annual AERA meeting and highlighted in the “Curriculum Matters” blog of Education Week. The study examined test results for more than 33,000 students in grades 4 through 12 and found that student performance varied across testing formats by grade band, students’ primary language, and the specific features of the computer-based system used. Read the full paper here.

Forthcoming Article on Energy Learning Progressions

Finally, Project 2061 team members Cari Herrmann-Abell and George DeBoer have co-authored an article to be published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching. The article focuses on the team’s effort to describe how students make progress in their understanding of 14 specific energy-related ideas at basic, intermediate, and advanced levels of complexity.  The study includes results from 359 multiple-choice test items administered to over 20,000 students in grades 4 through 12 from across the U.S. You can access a pre-publication version of the paper here. To request an alert when the article is published, please send us an email at