Changing Constellations

NSTA Page Keeley, Carey Sneider
Type Category
Assessment Materials
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 a formative assessment probe designed to elicit student ideas about why constellations that we can view in the night sky change with the seasons.  It poses a situation of a class visit to the planetarium where the program is about the summer sky.  A student asks the instructor to show the constellation Orion. The student must give an explanation for why the instructor cannot do that.  This probe offers four possible ideas that the student might have used to explain why the instructor is unable to show Orion.  After students make a choice, they then justify their choice with reasoning by explaining their thinking.  The information and activity suggestions contained in the teacher notes assists in curriculum and lesson planning.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Middle School
  • Upper Elementary
Access Restrictions

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Performance Expectations

5-ESS1-2 Represent data in graphical displays to reveal patterns of daily changes in length and direction of shadows, day and night, and the seasonal appearance of some stars in the night sky.

Clarification Statement: Examples of patterns could include the position and motion of Earth with respect to the sun and selected stars that are visible only in particular months.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include causes of seasons.

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This probe assesses student ideas about the cause of the seasonal appearance of different stars and constellations. Misconceptions about seasons persists into adulthood for many people. While tilt and obit of Earth cause amount of daylight and angle of sun variance in different seasons, orbit by itself changes the stars we see in the night sky regardless of tilt. In this assessment, the teacher gains information about student ideas that can inform the instruction that begins the journey to understanding the causes of seasons. If the teacher uses the suggested activity on page 78 with the 12 posters in instruction, there is a stronger connection to the seasonal appearance of some stars in the night sky.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
This is a two tiered assessment that requires students to justify their choice of an answer to the situation posed. As an alternative to the paper/pencil method, the assessment probe can be used with a number of formative assessment techniques to assess student understanding. For instance, students can be paired or assemble in small groups composed of students with different ideas to discuss and defend their choice. This allows the teacher to listen to their ideas while walking through the classroom, keeping all students engaged in discussion. Students might also be asked to draw a model to support their claim in the probe.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
This probe is explicitly assessing whether or not students understand that Earth’s orbit and rotation affect the stars we see in the sky at night. This is an assessment, but the teaching notes give suggestions for instruction. One suggestion is to set up a circle of zodiac constellations in the room with a sun in the center as in the resource Kinesthetic Astronomy. Additional lessons on day and night, daily changes in the length and direction of shadows and different positions of the sun and moon at different times of the day month and year would need to be completed to fully meet the entire disciplinary core idea.

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
Students whose reasoning is exemplary would include the cause and effect relationship between Earth’s orbit and rotation to the reason one would see different stars and constellations in the night sky at different times of the year.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: A student would use all three dimensions in an exemplary answer to the probe. They would construct the argument that Earth’s rotation is the reason we see stars at night because we can only seem them when it is dark and we are facing away from the sun. Earth’s orbit causes us to see different constellations because we face away from the sun in a different direction as the Earth orbits in a yearly pattern.

  • Instructional Supports: The instructional supports provided by this resource include the following: Purpose, Related Concepts, Explanation, Administering the Probe, National Science Education Standards, Benchmarks for Science Literacy, Related Research, Suggestions for Instruction and Assessment as well as References. While it is an assessment, the Suggestions for Instruction and Assessment are very helpful in planning instruction based on the results when given to students.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The resource is a formative assessment that can be used to elicit students’ ideas about how Earth’s orbit and rotation affect the stars and constellations we see in the night sky. If used before instruction, dependent on student choice, the teacher is able to identify students’ ideas coming into instruction. This resource could also be used as a post assessment letting the teacher know if instruction was effective.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: There is no technology used in this resource.