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Creating Opportunities for Students to Show What They Know: The Role of Scaffolding in Assessment Tasks


  • Contract grant sponsor: National Science Foundation.

  • Contract grant number: DRL-0822016.

  • Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.


This study examines the ways in which teachers provide students with written scaffolds in assessment tasks and the impact of these on students’ abilities to demonstrate a core disciplinary proficiency—constructing evidence-based explanations. Data include 76 assessment tasks designed by 33 science teachers and 707 samples of student work. We found five types of scaffolding embedded in assessments that allowed students to make their reasoning explicit: (a) using contextualized phenomena, (b) rubrics, (c) checklists, (d) sentence frames, and (e) encouraging students to draw explanatory models in combination with written explanation. Analyses showed that all five forms of scaffolding were significantly associated with the quality of student explanation even when controlling for teacher variance and student background. Providing contextualized phenomena had the greatest impact on the quality of student explanations, both by itself and in combination with other scaffolding. The results indicate that strategic combinations of scaffolds can prompt students across all achievement levels to more readily use what they know to produce evidence-based explanations, but that the scaffolding must be of high quality.

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