Professional Learning

Assessing with Purpose: Formative Assessment in Science

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Formative Assessment Hmh Into Science Hero

What is formative assessment, and what makes it so powerful? According to the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), formative assessment is defined as a process used during instruction to elicit evidence of learning to improve student understanding. HMH’s senior assessment specialist Amanda Bratten describes it like this: “Formative assessment allows teachers to collect real-time data to inform next steps. It’s low stakes (no grades), timely (happens in the middle of learning), and helps to improve the teaching and learning process.“

Teachers can use real-time data gained through making observations, questioning and prompting students, or evaluating classroom discourse, to assess learning and get students back on track.

Though state-level assessments are essential, classroom-level formative evaluations provide vital information pertaining to teaching and learning. They help teachers plan their instruction and allow students to reflect on their thinking. HMH Into Science includes dynamic formative assessments to monitor student progress and guide instruction.

How does HMH Into Science use formative assessments?

Educators can use the carefully designed formative assessments featured in HMH Into Science units to support teaching and learning. In HMH Into Science, the instruction and assessments require students to make sense of phenomena or design solutions to problems to drive their learning.

Instruction in HMH Into Science is aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which present three distinct dimensions to learning science: Science and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Disciplinary Core Ideas. These dimensions, when combined, engage students and help them build an in-depth understanding of science. They also provide educators a range of opportunities to observe and record evidence of student learning using formative assessments. Moreover, the science and engineering practices and the crosscutting concepts give students the chance to make their thinking visible.

What are formative assessment examples for science?

Formative Assessment Using Science and Engineering Practices

HMH Into Science features strategically placed formative assessment call-out boxes throughout each grade-level teacher guide. These call-out boxes prompt teachers to ask questions that will enable their students to use science and engineering practices to figure out and explain phenomena. For example, a call-out box may prompt a teacher to have students “discuss what forces make a rolling ball slow down.“ Students would then make use of various science and engineering practices as they attempt to explain the phenomenon.

Engagement in these practices gives teachers insights into student understanding and progress and aids in teacher decision-making for instruction.

Formative Assessment Using the Crosscutting Concepts

The National Research Council’s Framework for K–12 Science Education defines crosscutting concepts as “concepts that bridge disciplinary core boundaries, having explanatory value throughout much of science and engineering.“ These concepts give students “an organizational framework for connecting knowledge from the various disciplines into a coherent and scientifically-based view of the world.”

Crosscutting concepts support student sense-making and help them make connections across all disciplines. Using crosscutting concepts in prompts or questions allows teachers to focus their students’ attention on specific aspects of a phenomenon and eliminate “noise.”

The below performance-based assessment, “Water Collection” from HMH Into Science Grade 5, features a problem in which a student wants to use water collected from the roof as drinking water for his pets. The student is presented with a system model of a solar still. The concept underlying the solar still is based on the idea that matter is made up of particles too small to be seen (NGSS 5-PS1-1). Students must structure their thinking through the lens of the crosscutting concept of systems and systems models. Additionally, students must focus their thinking on a specific aspect of the phenomenon, in this case, that matter is made up of very small, unseen particles that change from one state to another.

Formative assessment in science engages students and promotes their thinking. It also informs teachers’ instruction. Read more about the formative assessment activities and prompts built directly into HMH Into Science, and how they support teachers and their students, in the white paper below.


Looking for hands-on science lessons and activities for Grades K–5? Explore HMH Into Science, a phenomena-based science solution.


Next Generation Science Standards and logo are registered trademarks of Achieve. Neither Achieve nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of, and do not endorse, this product.

The information in this blog post originated from a white paper by Peter McLaren, NGSS Writing Team Member, Executive Director of Next Gen Education, LLC.

For insights into how to structure questions and prompts that engage students about science phenomena, watch the webinar presented by Peter McLaren, The Power of the Dimension of Crosscutting Concepts: Prompting Student Sensemaking and Discourse.

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