Habitat Change Assessment Probe

Page Keeley, Francis Eberle, Joyce Tugel
Type Category
Instructional Materials Assessment Materials
Activity , Assessment Item
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



This is one of 25 assessment probes from the book,” Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, Volume 2: 25 More Formative Assessment Probes”, by Page Keeley and co-authors. All assessment probes in this collection are aligned to a particular science concept and field-tested by several teachers in classes of diverse student backgrounds. The “Habitat Change” assessment probe is written in the format of a prediction probe, asking students to predict what would happen to divos (imaginary animals living on an island with warm climate and plenty of tree ants, the divo’s source of food) if the environment on that island changes dramatically, and all of the tree ants die. Students are asked to “circle any of the things you think happened to most of the divos living on the island after their habitat changed” (p. 143, Keeley, 2007). Each of the distractors represents a commonly held student misconception about adaptation; one of the choices represents the scientific conception. The second part of the assessment probe asks students to explain their thinking, i.e. explain how they decided what effect the change in the divos’ habitat would have on most of the divos. This formative assessment probe elicits whether or not students think that individuals intentionally can change their physical characteristics (fur length and thickness, or teeth or mouthparts) or their inherited behaviors (digging holes to live in, hibernating in cold weather) in response to a change in the environment.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • High School
Access Restrictions

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Performance Expectations

HS-LS4-4 Construct an explanation based on evidence for how natural selection leads to adaptation of populations.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on using data to provide evidence for how specific biotic and abiotic differences in ecosystems (such as ranges of seasonal temperature, long-term climate change, acidity, light, geographic barriers, or evolution of other organisms) contribute to a change in gene frequency over time, leading to adaptation of populations.

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This assessment probe can serve as one component in a series of learning activities that lead the students to develop an explanation on how natural selection leads to adaptation of populations. The probe elicits students’ ideas on whether individual animals intentionally can change their physical characteristics or their inherited behaviors in response to a change in the environment. When administering the probe, teachers should explain that divos are imaginary organisms, faced with drastic environment changes, but that the same situation can arise with real organisms. Depending on the group of learners, teacher can add additional distracters to the choices, such as growing stronger teeth to crack the seeds. Assessment probes are designed to be integrated into classroom instruction. Their purpose it to promote student thinking and open up opportunities for learning. They are best used at the beginning of instruction to elicit students’ prior knowledge and during instruction to monitor developing understanding. Assessment probes provide the teacher with information about what students think about a concept, not only revealing incorrect responses, but also partially correct, or correct responses and reasoning. These data can be used by the teacher to modify instruction and/or provide feedback to students. Assessment probes should never be graded, as this diminishes their utility as formative assessment tools.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
In science and in the classroom, the practice of engaging in argument from evidence will often precede the development of a generally accepted explanation for a phenomenon. By administering a probe at the beginning and during instruction, the teacher is making student thinking explicit as students inquire about a specific phenomenon. It is helpful to invest the time to allow all student ideas to be made public, e.g. by posting the answer choices on a chart in front of the class and engaging students in a discussion of the justifications for each of the choices. This creates a culture of learning, where individuals’ ideas are valued in contrast to the “correct” answer. Encouraging students to discuss the different answers and justification with a partner or in small group, or as a class, supports the development of productive talk in the science classroom. It encourages students to take risks, listen carefully to each other, and encourages the learner to continue to reflect on their own learning as the lesson unfolds, and thus promotes a safe classroom environment, building a community of learners. For the habitat change assessment probe, asking students to evaluate the five claims provided and to justify their selected claim will support students in clarifying their own ideas about the consequence of drastic habitat change on a population/species. To take full advantage of this learning opportunity, teachers will need to engage students in small-group and/or whole-class discussions of the various claims and underlying processes.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
While there is no one correct choice to what happened to the divos on the island as the climate changed drastically, the best explanation is that most of the divos died. This probe elicits students’ understanding of the meaning of the word “adapt” as a change over many generations, not as something that individuals intentionally do in response to changes in their environment. Because most of the divos have inherited physical structures and behaviors that no longer help them survive in the altered environment, the best answer is that most of the divos will die. Students’ explanations might address that the distribution of traits in a population can change when conditions change, that changes in the physical environment can contribute to the decline–and sometimes the extinction–of some species, and that species can become extinct because they can no longer survive and reproduce in their altered environment. This assessment probe is useful for high school students, as students start to transition from learning that individuals with certain traits are better equipped to survive in a given environment, to thinking about changing of proportion of traits in a population of organisms in a given environment. While many students may come to high school already understanding that individuals cannot change their inherited traits based on changes in the environment, other students may still believe that organisms can intentionally change inherited body structures or behaviors. If such misconceptions are not revealed at the beginning of instruction and addressed throughout instruction they interfere with learning about adaptation and evolution. This assessment probe can start formal concept development and transfer. As a result of the student responses to the assessment probe, teachers may help students further develop existing ideas. Some students may correctly predict that most divos will die, but they may be unsure about how this specific phenomenon is related to adaptation of populations over time, and evolution in general. Teacher may also help students to differentiate among existing ideas. In this instance teachers can help students clarify the difference between inherited traits that an individual cannot change and traits and behavior that can change during an individual’s lifetime. The probe can also provide an opportunity for the teacher to help students make connections among different disciplinary core ideas and tie the fate of the divo’s to science concepts in genetics and ecology. If teachers notice that many students still hold on to the idea that animals can change inherited behavior in response to environmental changes, teachers can design activities to address these misconceptions. If students are demonstrating that they already understand that animals cannot change their inherited behavior or structures in response to a change in the environment, instruction can move to unpacking the mechanism by which the ratio of traits within populations can change in response to changes in the environment. Prediction probes like the Habitat Change probe can lead into inquiry of real data or simulations, where students test their predictions and revise their explanations if their observations do not match their prediction.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
This assessment probe provides a great opportunity for students to link the specific example (a drastic change in environmental conditions causes most of the divos to die) to the general crosscutting concept of cause and effect, which the teacher should draw out during classroom discussion and subsequent learning activities.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This assessment probe builds on the claim-evidence-reasoning framework and asks students to evaluate multiple claims before identifying and supporting the best claim. Therefore, the probe makes a strong connection to the practice dimension of the NGSS. The connection to the DCI is strong, but only explicitly addresses part of the DCI. The connection to the CCC is present, but the task only asks students to select a claim and provide an explanation, based on their own prior knowledge. The teachers will need to provide additional learning activities for students to provide stronger connections to the disciplinary core idea and crosscutting concept.

  • Instructional Supports: Assessment probes consist of the actual one-page probe for use with students, and a section of several pages with teacher notes. Teacher notes include information on the purpose of the probe, related science concepts, an explanation of all answer choices, curricular and instructional considerations, suggestions for administering the probe, related standards (National Science Education Standards, 1996), related ideas in Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS, 1993), related research, description of common student misconceptions, suggestions for instruction and assessment, and related NSTA science store publications and journal articles. An assessment probe is a purposefully designed, multi-grade level question that asks students to provide a two-part response. Part one consists of a selected response, and part two asks students to provide an explanation. This format helps teachers identify students’ existing ideas about phenomena or concepts, which can help inform the design of instruction. Assessment probes can also be used to engage students, encourage thinking, and promote sharing of ideas. When implementing probes in the classroom, the authors suggest using the probe to encourage teacher-student, student-teacher, and student-student feedback on learning. The probe engages students in a fictitious situation, involving imaginary animals, divos. Thinking about a specific situation when they make their claim, helps students identify with the context. By asking students to transfer their current understanding of the concept of adaptation to this fictitious situation, student responses will reveal how fragile/firm their understanding of the science concepts. Use of this assessment probe is one of the instructional strategies in an instructional sequence that can include investigations, models/simulation, reading, or analyzing real data. Revisiting the probe at the end of the instructional sequence, will support students in monitoring their own learning, especially if students are being asked to share with each other what changes they made to their explanation. The accompanying teacher notes provide good content background, a progression of student understanding from elementary to middle school to high school, common misconceptions, and suggestions for implementation and instruction. Providing a context with which students can identify is helpful for English Language Learners. Student responses to the assessment probe can be used to differentiate instruction. Using a probe does not always have to involve writing. Alternatives include listening to students discuss probes, observing students test ideas from the probes, and having students draw their ideas.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The teacher notes discuss expected student understanding at different grade bands but not at different levels of understanding within those grade bands, and a rubric is not provided. The information gained from the student responses to this probe should provide useful information to plan and adjust instruction. The teacher notes contain some specific suggestions for instruction and assessment, e.g. to compare and contrast with students the everyday common use of the word adaptation with the scientific meaning of the word. Based on their selected response answer choices, students could be assigned or self-assign to different answer choices and discuss explanations with other students in that small group. A large group discussion of the class choices and their explanation can be a good start to come to consensus of what the class thinks at the outset of instruction, as students are making arguments for and against different choices. The responses can be revisited as instruction progresses and students can suggest that certain choices should be removed based on evidence gathered during the activities.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This is not a technology-based resource. However, the probe could be administered through online technologies (e.g. Google Forms, which would facilitate the teacher’s ability to analyze and respond to class-level data generated through this assessment. Plotting student responses anonymously via a response system or post-it notes create a safe classroom environment and separates the ideas from the individual students, which in term promotes risk taking.