Based on reviewing existing literature, we drafted a provisional learning progression (LP) for the core concept of matter and its interactions and a provisional LP for the science practice of constructing scientific explanations. Both of these progressions apply to grades K–8. The matter LP in particular does not extend to high school. Based on external feedback from advisory committees, we made multiple revisions to the provisional progressions. We chose to keep the progressions for content and practice separate, given that it might be difficult to disentangle the constructs if they were present in a fused progression.

Table 1 and Table 2 present the learning progressions (LPs) for two main ideas that make up the core idea of matter and its interactions.

The development of both LPs is based on theoretical and empirical scholarly work, although the LPs still need to be tested and validated, which is planned in our future work when we pilot and implement the tasks. The theoretical work for the matter LPs is largely based on work by Smith et al. (2006) and Rogat (2011). The Smith et al. work theorized a K-8 LP for the atomic-molecule model of matter. This work identified several big ideas as key aspects of student thinking that our progression addresses, such as material identity, properties of mater relevant to structure of matter, and conservation and transformation of matter. The more recent work by Rogat also had important impact on developing our progression. This work theorized K-12 progressions for properties and structure of matter and change in matter, and included more current understanding of how students come to understand matter. Furthermore, this work is well aligned with the report, A Framework for K-12 Science Education (National Research Council [NRC], 2012).

The development of the matter LPs was also based on empirical work (P. Johnson, 1998, 2000, 2002; Krajcik, McNeill, & Reiser, 2008; Krnel, Watson, & Glazar, 1998; X. Liu & Lesniak, 2005; Merritt, 2010; Nakhleh & Samarapungavan, 1999; Papageorgiou & Johnson, 2005; Stavy, 1990, 1991; Stevens, Delgado, & Krajcik, 2010; Wiser & Smith, 2008; Wiser, Smith, & Doubler, 2012). These different empirical pieces range from cross sectional and short-term longitudinal studies examining students’ conceptions of matter through interviews and drawings, to curriculum interventions that attempt to support and examine students’ conceptions of matter through drawings and/or explanations.

In sum, our LPs for matter and its interactions show a progression from early macroscopic notions of matter that include no conception of the nanoscopic particles of matter, or their structure or behaviors (e.g., Levels 1-2 in the structure and properties LP as well as in the change and conservation LP), to a variety of intermediate conceptions of matter that include increasingly more sophisticated notions of the nanoscopic particles of matter and their structure and behaviors (e.g., Levels 3-4 in the structure and properties LP, and Levels 3-5 in the change and conservation LP). Finally, at the top level of the progression are the most sophisticated models of matter expected from middle school science students as articulated in the NGSS (Level 5 in the structure and properties LP, and Level 6 in the change and conservation LP). At these top levels, students are capable of explaining, predicting, or modeling the properties and behavior of a variety of natural phenomena involving matter. Note that we focus on levels rather than grades to label the progressively more sophisticated ideas because we do not want to imply that a given LP level is guaranteed to show up at a particular grade. For example, while Levels 1 and 2 are typically found in elementary school, they may be encountered at middle school grades.

In all LP tables (Tables 1-3), the lowest levels are listed at the top of the table and the most sophisticated levels are at the bottom of the table. In terms of the format of the LP tables, there are three columns in each table: “Achievement,” which reflects the intellectual achievements in student thinking at each level, “Gap/challenge,” which reflects the common errors in thinking at each level (some of which might be misconceptions), and “Instructional experience to support progressions,” which reflects what teachers should do in order to help students move to the next level by addressing the gaps specified in the progression. We have identified progress variables (underlined subtitles) in the matter LPs that can be tracked across at least two levels in the progression. Finally, the “Key words” at each level serves to identify key aspects of thinking (e.g., significant ideas that are missing, significant errors in thinking, or the emergence of new ideas).

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