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Water-Holding Capacity
Administration Procedures

Grade 9-12 Performance Task
Developed by: New York State Education Department (NYSED)
University of Buffalo and NORC (1991)


The retention of water by different materials affects their use by plants and animals. In this activity, students design a method to determine the water-holding capacity of sand, soil, and moss.

This task assesses students' abilities to state a hypothesis, develop procedures for investigation, make a plan for recording and organizing observations and data, collect quality observations and data, and write a conclusion consistent with scientific principle and the collected data.

This task is designed to take students approximately 80 minutes to complete - 30 minutes for Part A and 50 minutes for Part B.

Overall Task Content Area:

Earth and Space Science

Specific Knowledge Areas:

Structure of the earth system

Performance Expectations:

  • conducting investigations
  • using equipment
  • gathering, organizing, and representing data
  • formulating conclusions from investigational data
  • applying scientific principles to develop explanations

National Science Education Standards:

8 D ESS 1: Structure of the earth system: Grades 5-8
1.5 Soil consists of weathered rocks and decomposed organic material from dead plants, animals, and bacteria. Soils are often found in layers, with each having a different chemical composition and texture.

1.6 Water, which covers the majority of the earth’s surface, circulates through the crust, oceans, and atmosphere in what is known as the "water cycle." Water evaporates from the earth’s surface, rises and cools as it moves to higher elevations, condenses as rain or snow, and falls to the surface where it collects in lakes, oceans, soil, and in rocks underground.

12 A SI 1: Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry: Grades 9-12
1.2 Design and conduct scientific investigations. Designing and conducting a scientific investigation requires introduction to the major concepts in the area being investigated, proper equipment, safety precautions, assistance with methodological problems, recommendations for use of technologies, clarification of ideas that guide the inquiry, and scientific knowledge obtained from sources other than the actual investigation. The investigation may also require student clarification of the question, method, controls, and variables; student organization and display of data; student revision of methods and explanations; and a public presentation of the results with a critical response from peers. Regardless of the scientific investigation performed, students must use evidence, apply logic, and construct an argument for their proposed explanations.

1.3 Use technology and mathematics to improve investigations and communications. A variety of technologies, such as hand tools, measuring instruments, and calculators, should be an integral component of scientific investigations. The use of computers for the collection, analysis, and display of data is also a part of this standard. Mathematics plays an essential role in all aspects of an inquiry. For example, measurement is used for posing questions, formulas are used for developing explanations, and charts and graphs are used for communicating results.

1.6 Communicate and defend a scientific argument. Students in school science programs should develop the abilities associated with accurate and effective communication. These include writing and following procedures, expressing concepts, reviewing information, summarizing data, using language appropriately, developing diagrams and charts, explaining statistical analysis, speaking clearly and logically, constructing a reasoned argument, and responding appropriately to critical comments.

(Use the "hot" link on the PALS home page to check the full text of related National Science Education Standards, if desired.)

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics:

DAP1: Formulate questions that can be addressed with data and collect, organize, and display relevant data to answer them:
Grades 9-12 k. know the characteristics of well-designed studies, including the role of randomization in surveys and experiments
Grades 9-12 l. understand the meaning of measurement data and categorical data, of univariate and bivariate data, and of the term variable

PS2: Solve problems that arise in mathematics and in other contexts:
Grades 9-12

CNX3: Recognize and apply mathematics in contexts outside of mathematics:
Grades 9-12

General Instructions to the Teacher:

This task is designed to take approximately 80 minutes to complete - 30 minutes for Part A and 50 minutes for Part B.

Students will be working individually during this exercise.

Students should be ready to work as soon as the period begins. The materials should be set out at each lab station, if possible. A central supply area, if needed, should be easily accessible. All supplies should be clearly labeled.

Materials for "Water-Holding Capacity":

  • Water - 800 ml (approx.) in a large beaker
  • Graduated cylinder - 100 ml
  • 3 funnels - 100 mm top diameter
  • 3 funnel supports (ring stands or tripods)
  • 3 beakers - 250 ml
  • 3 sheets of filter paper - 18.5 cm diameter
  • Clock/timer
  • Wax marking pencil
  • Dry potting soil (enough for 100 gms for each student)
  • Dry sand (enough for 100 gms for each student)
  • Dry sphagnum moss (enough for 100 gms for each student)
  • Paper towels
  • 3 paper cups
  • Balance (accurate to +/-0.1 gram)
  • Spoons

Advance Preparation:

Dry the potting soil by spreading it out on newspaper overnight.


  • Be careful.
  • Teachers and students should always exercise appropriate safety precautions and utilize appropriate laboratory safety procedures and equipment when working on science performance tasks.





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