Learning progressions (LPs) in science have been defined as “empirically grounded and testable hypotheses about how students’ understanding of, and ability to use, core scientific concepts, explanations, and related scientific practices grow and become more sophisticated over time, with appropriate instruction” (Corcoran, Mosher, & Rogat, 2009, p. 20). Essentially, an LP is a road map that shows how students’ thinking about a core idea or science practice changes and becomes more sophisticated over time. LPs can serve as a guide for educators as they design instruction and monitor students’ progress toward the targeted levels of understanding and ability. According to an expert panel’s review of the work in this field (Corcoran et al., 2009), an LP must include the following elements:

  • Target performances are learning goals which are the end points of a an LP and are defined by societal expectations, analysis of the discipline, and/or requirements for entry into the next level of education.

  • Progress variables are the dimensions of understanding, application, and practice that are being developed and tracked over time. These may be big ideas that constitute core concepts in the discipline or critical aspects of practices central to scientific work.

  • Levels of achievement are intermediate steps in the developmental pathway(s) traced by an LP. These levels may reflect levels of integration or common stages that characterize the development of student thinking. There may be intermediate steps that are noncanonical but are stepping stones to canonical ideas.

  • Learning performances are the kinds of tasks students at a particular level of achievement should be capable of performing. They provide specifications for the development of assessments and activities that identify the scientific ideas and practices by which students will demonstrate their proficiency in science.

  • Assessments are the instruments used collect evidence of students’ thinking as specified by the provisional progression. Assessments are integral to the development, validation, and use of LPs. It is critical that an LP be validated and empirically tested.

Based on this consensus and the goals of CBAL, we presume that LPs should be based on learning theories of how students gain particular core knowledge and skills (or practices) within a domain, as well as on the developmental theories of how students develop particular cognitive skills over time. LPs must be continually revised based on the collection of new evidence from the students. The empirically based revisions enable LPs to provide more accurate and general descriptions of sequentially different patterns, or levels, in thinking and ability, as students make progress toward the upper level of understanding defined in standards. In the field of assessment, LPs provide a framework to guide the design of tasks that are sensitive to progress toward a desired level of proficiency. In particular, LPs can help us to design assessments that provide a range of information about students' intermediate knowledge, rather than evaluate students' ability and knowledge as an oversimplified all-or-nothing category of response. Additionally, LPs can guide the development of scoring rubrics and suggest ways to elicit evidence of student thinking. Furthermore, LPs can also provide teachers with an opportunity to think critically about what students know and can do, and realize where students might be coming from and where they need to go—therefore, LPs can serve an important role in supporting the formative assessment process (Furtak, 2012).

For this early stage of the CBAL science project, we have focused on one core idea (matter and its interactions, including the structure and properties of matter, and changes in and conservation of matter). We have focused on matter because it is one of the most foundational core ideas in the natural sciences and there is considerable research to draw from. Our project focuses only on middle school (i.e., Grades 6-8) science content.

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