Geoff Burroughs on Creating Quality NGSS Assessments

Student at desk

We're getting so much great feedback on the Venture platform, so we wanted to let folks know about the people in our content development team. Below is an interview with Geoff Burroughs, middle school science teacher at the Pittsburg Unified School District, and a member of the Venture content development team.


When this project came to you, what excited you about it?

As I worked on Venture, I was really impressed with the way we were laying it out because we were aiming to give people solid questions that actually tied into the idea of scientific thinking. It allowed us to start from the standard first and determine the appropriate vocabulary that needs to be included so the big ideas are captured. Oftentimes, sample questions do not test depth of knowledge, or are very poorly written, and they do not offer the option to create your own. Since science involves hands-on, activity-based content, it’s important the language and questions accurately test this knowledge.


Have you found there is a considerable lack of specificity in terms of standards-based assessment?

Most of the questions from publishers are tied to “What did we teach?” rather than “What are students supposed to know?”


Going back to 2013-14 when NGSS was launched, what was your initial impression? How has your impression of the standards changed 6-7 years later?

In looking at how the standards were set up, science is often not the thematic driver for all other subjects. The common challenge in the beginning was that districts would create a layered program, but the content had the least focus. The people creating testing programs for science are not always putting content first; they're centered on the Science and Engineering Practices (SEP).

As we moved forward, science standards incorporated the Engineering, Technology and the Application of Science (ETS) and Crosscutting Concepts (CCC) which was very beneficial. From the start, many districts were already creating their own essential questions, but the idea that you have a list of core ideas and essential questions that can service as an umbrella for all learning is just magical.


Could you give an example?

When I was an 8th grade teacher, there were questions, “What are the characteristic properties of waves?” and “How can one predict an objects continued motion, change in motion, or stability?" Essential questions are built in as you go through Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI) and can provide helpful direction within each unit. Especially if you are using the 5E lesson plan model, having an essential question to accompany instruction can help to boost student understanding. Instructors can see how to change the essential question to an engagement question, an explore question or an explain question. This shows students that there is a bigger question they're looking to answer and promotes active, collaborative learning.


In regards to NGSS, what things make your life better and what are the things that make it more challenging?

In terms of challenges, most providers are not offering solutions to make life easier, and content providers all have very different ideas of NGSS. You look across the nation and vocabulary is a huge issue for science teachers, because vocabulary acquisition, especially in science, includes low frequency, specialized words.

When you look at what we did with Venture, we were very deliberate about the language fitting the standard and omitting unnecessary words that could make it more confusing for a student. Most of the assessments in Venture include 10 to 15 words of vocabulary across 30 items. With this approach, the reading is not a barrier to learning or showing what students understand; the vocabulary is already a part of their language.


What are some specific smiles and cries about middle school?

Students want to hear your positive feedback and reinforcement, hearing they did a good job. Unlike the K-5 environment, a middle schooler often has several different teachers, all with a different set of rules. If you can create more of a consensus, students know they need to act the same regardless.

In regards to testing, the Venture team did a great job of creating standards-aligned activities, providing a good structure around these simulations. Instead of student just exploring, they’re encouraged to think, “What did I just do?” and “Do that same thing, but change the parameters and tell why this worked out differently.”

Thanks for your time Geoff!