3 Strategies for Developing a Performance Task in Science

Looking for a way to authentically and fully assess student comprehension? Use performance tasks! As science content writers, we are familiar with hands-on challenges that assess discrete skills—for example, a multi-station practical at the end of a laboratory-based course.

Recent emphases on critical thinking “21st century” skills in common core and next generation science standards have expanded performance tasks to not only include hands-on assessments, but to show understanding at higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. In either case, you need to carefully plan and explicitly design tasks so the testable outcomes are clear and students are able to apply learned information to novel situations. Here are three strategies to ensure your performance tasks are successful!

  1. Require Problem Solving, Reasoning, and Transfer

How do you design science performance tasks that satisfy these bolded criteria? Ask students to design an experiment or engineer a product. Both extend thinking so students use new knowledge to create a testable hypothesis or functioning product.

Since this open-ended approach has no correct answer, it is important to provide scaffolding. You can scaffold by including:

  1. a focus question or design goal
  2. a limited set of materials and cost
  3. an explanation of the process (procedure or steps)
  4. a well-written conclusion or reflection that ensures students explain how they analyzed and solved problems

What about simpler, station-like tasks? Chunk it out! For example, ask students to:

  1. critique and rewrite a poor hypothesis or procedure
  2. choose the appropriate tool to measure variables or the correct data and type of graph to show results
  3. add detail to a set of directions so they are more easily followed
  4. use specific evidence to argue for or against an idea or conclusion

An advantage of including a series of tasks is that a teacher can use a three-part process through which they:

  1. demonstrate the task
  2. provide practice and feedback
  3. put it all together into a final summative assessment

student walking down a road

  1. Create Real-World (Authentic) Applications

Student better retain information if they apply their learning to relevant situations in which they are interested. Ideally, students could choose both the subject and product of their own assessment.   Ideas for doing so include Menus, Tic-Tac-Toe, Baseball and more like those shown in Differentiating Instruction with Menus: Science (Grades 6-8).

The beauty of performance tasks is that they can be differentiated to include all types of learners.  This can be accomplished by including hands-on building challenges, the mathematical determination of relationships between variables, and visually sketching labeled blueprint or experimental setups to create diverse products such as brochures, plays, Ted talks, and more.  Differentiation will ensure your assessments are accessible to all cultures and modalities of learning.

  1. Provide Field-Tested Guidelines

If there is no one answer to your assessment, how do you grade it? Make a well-structured checklist or rubric! Teachers can provide the rubric to students before they begin, so that all goals and expectations are clear. The rubric/checklist can be used to focus instruction, create clear targets, and provide self-assessment and feedback.

Make sure your rubric has a specific end in mind. State what it is you want the student to be able to do. For example, should they be able to properly use a graduated cylinder? If so, your checklist could include criteria like:

  1. chose the correct-sized cylinder to make measurements
  2. used an eyedropper to align the meniscus
  3. measured at eye level on a level surface

This attention to detail ensures both teachers and students understand expectations.

One design approach is to use the acronym G.R.A.S.P.S. created by Wiggins and McTighe (2004). This method includes (1) a real-world Goal, (2) a meaningful Role for the student, (3) authentic (or simulated) Audience(s), (4) a Situation that involves real-world application, (5) student-generated Products and Performances, and (6) Standards (criteria) by which successful performance would be judged.

Key to your course design is to make sure either you or your teachers have room to field-test the rubric/checklist and modify/extend/differentiate as needed. One method is to use the series of stations idea. That way you are field-testing as you go so that the final summative product is feasible and student-friendly.

Looking for science performance task rubrics you can use and modify?  See the NGSS Equip Rubric  and Evidence Statements.


Including all of the above in your performance assessments can seem overwhelming. Use part of your summer to learn more about writing well-designed performance tasks by reviewing (or using) those that have already been written and field-tested! Great examples include those found at the following organizations.

  • Next Generation Science Classroom Sample Tasks
  • National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) computer and hands-on tasks
  • Exemplars for NECAP tasks


Who is A Pass?

A Pass Educational Group, LLC is an organization dedicated to the development of quality educational resources. We partner with publishers, K-12 schools, higher ed institutions, corporations, and other educational stakeholders to create custom quality content. Have questions?

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