How to Prepare for Science Cluster Items

Eric Rhoades

Many teachers are asking themselves the question, “how do I best prepare my students for cluster items?” Many teachers experienced a similar thought when the technology-enhanced items (TEI) were introduced. Students who are successful on any assessment typically have teachers who focus on 1) providing students with rich experiences that encourage critical thinking, communication, and collaboration, 2) engaging students in the science and engineering practices, 3) developing conceptual understanding through sense making.

“A science item cluster consists of a context-rich stimulus (e.g., a description of a scientific investigation performed by students) that is presented to students in the assessment followed by three to six science questions that are connected to the scientific details of the stimulus.” (Supts Memo# 254-21) Cluster items are now on the Grade 5, Grade 8, and Biology SOL tests.


Students who experience rich experiences focused on phenomena identify with the relevance in what they are learning. Relevance helps students see the value of what they’re learning and rigor ensures they are challenged to develop advanced skills and knowledge. Rigor and relevance are also important for equity, because they ensure that all students have access and entry points to high-level content and practices.


Exploring and investigating phenomena allows students to utilize SEPs which leads to meaningful, lasting learning. Students have to think about the outcome they’re trying to achieve, look at the materials they have available, and then come up with a process that will allow them to explain the natural world..

In science, it means generating data to answer questions. In engineering, it means designing solutions that solve problems.

When the outcome isn’t what’s expected, or when different students have varying results, it presents an ideal moment to take a step back and analyze those differences. What’s different? Why did those differences occur? What can we learn from this process? This will lead to richer learning experiences than providing multiple experiences with assessment items.

Why is this approach so transformative? Fundamentally, it’s because students develop higher-order thinking skills of creating, evaluating, and analyzing. When you help students develop the SEPs, you are actually developing critical thinking skills that they can apply in any situation. What better to prepare students for cluster items than to be critical thinkers. It provides students with a scientific way of thinking, one that involves questioning, gathering data, analyzing, and communicating—skills that are transferable to any discipline, career, or life event.


Science is fundamentally about making sense of the natural world. Sense-making is the conceptual process in which a learner actively engages with the natural or designed world, wonders about it, and then develops, tests, and refines ideas.

We often use the phrase “figure something out.” When you are trying to figure something out, you are trying to make sense of it. You are engaged in the process of sense-making. Essentially, sense-making is about actively trying to figure out the way the world works.

Students who have conceptual understanding using SEPs would seem to be better prepared for a cluster item than those students who have just experienced several cluster items as practice. With that said, it is important they are comfortable with the format if they haven’t experienced them.

Students who have deeper understanding and critical thinking skills are transferable to any situation and lead to greater student achievement. We all understand the temptation of test preparation over strategic instruction focused on conceptual understanding through the development of SEPs and sensemaking.

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