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Assessments and History: Can You Assess It?


Theodore K. Rabb writes that in an ideal world, evaluation would be unnecessary. After all, he says, Socrates never gave grades.

But assessment is here to stay, the professor emeritus of history at Princeton University acknowledges, and the current buzzword in education is "proficiency." And yet, he argues, there is a huge divide between the nature of most history assessments and the proficiency they are supposed to demonstrate.

What do you think? What do teachers need in order to teach history effectively while meeting accountability standards?


Socrates may not have given written exams, but he did challenge students to solve problems through discussion and thought. This is assessment on the spot, similar to what happens in any classroom anywhere in the world. The type of assessments that are in use today are written by strangers, meant to determine competencies and have no real educational value beyond classifying students as "proficient" or "not proficient". Standardized exams are a poor substitute for learning and test preparation teaches only how to take tests. The testing belongs in the classroom under the duties of teaching as a feedback mechanism for teachers to determine what was and what was not effective. Such tests have nothing whatsover to do with accountability.

I agree with you, Bob. Note that the Texas social studies curriculum includes: political science (government), world history, U.S. History, Texas history, world geography, economics, culture, social sciences, ... ,
and connections to all other content areas. Because, by definition, it is a synthesizing discipline, assessment becomes exponentially complex. Further, our Texas social studies vertical curriculum alignment is disjointed, complicating learning, retention, and generalization.
I also agree with the person who said the curriculum has a disability, not necessarily the student. (Please let me know who to credit with this insight.)
Given the NCLB hyperfocus on data driven assessment/instruction, suggestions as to how to implement progress monitoring (formative assessment) for social studies are appreciated.

It's good to see that we all understand the drawbacks of standardized testing. The problem is that the high-stakes testing affects teaching. Our state exams always include questions on political cartoons, so political cartoons are given more space in the state frameworks than the whole of ancient history. Common sense rejects that, and all the similar examples, but they are with us every day.
Teachers are already short of time and resources. Add the stress of high-stakes testing and the extra fortitude required to teach history well in the face of pressure to focus heavily on just passing the tests, and you are asking a lot.

I would argue that in order to teach history to students, teachers need to have the parents supporting the students by taking them to visit historical places and learning about historical people and events through books, movies, magazines, plays, etc.... If students come to us without background knowledge, it is hard for them to make connections and syntesize the information in the curriculum. Teachers are only allowed a certain number of field trips per year, but parents have weekends and summers to help support their child by going on family fieldtrips.

I urge teachers to read Wiggins and McTighe, Understand By Design. There is invaluable info re: teaching for understanding and how to assess.

Knowing that teachers are so aware of how standardized testing is a detriment to their teaching of all subjects, it is frustrating to learn that the NCLB Act reauthorization will not even be brought to the floor of the Congress this year. Even though education is being sabotaged, by forcing students into test focused environments under this law that only condemns schools and does not educate, this assessment will continue. Fortunately many good teachers still manage somehow, and some students are resourceful enough to escape this terrible trap of our time. I personally have to believe that the reality in many classrooms is not measurable and is better than we know, because of the dedication of the teachers across this land. Teachers and students are being measured in ways that do not indicate the real knowledge that is being passed on in their classrooms. Teachers teach more by who they are, than what they do, because young people are perceptive. I hope they can continue the dedication with which they entered their profession, and do not get discouraged and leave.
Dedicated teachers are the life blood of education.

"I personally have to believe that the reality in many classrooms is not measurable and is better than we know, because of the dedication of the teachers across this land."--Deanna Enos

Thank you, Deanna, for pointing out that some(many?) important things are beyond quantitative measurement. Thank you also for your insights about student perceptiveness. In my opinion, you, too, are highly perceptive!
That said, how do we address the issues of accountability in education? I don't know the answer(s).
Thanks again!

Accountability is difficult to guage in the mileu of standardized testing. The real question is who and what is being counted. Education is more about engaging students in the what, where, when and why of history. Who were the founding fathers? What was their motivation to rebel against the authority that governed them and to establish a new kind of authority that was uniquely American? What similarities exist between the people of today and the people of yesterday? Where do students fit with the historical figures they are introduced to? What are the big questions and how can they be answered?(Wiggins and McTighe).
Hopefully, when students have an understanding of history, the trivial "facts" will make more sense and the "tests" will be a mere exercise in Finding the most reasonable answers among the multiple choice distractors. Maybe, eventually the testmakers will tire of their silly trivia games and find a more useful path for their talents, like creating challenging board games.

First of all, I think that testing kids on the facts in history is not an entirely bad idea. Knowing certain facts is very important. The extent to which this is being done though has gone too far (Most history standardized tests are pretty much the SAME thing)

Anyway, I think that the reason quality of history education is going down is because of the segregation created by the AP classes. People in that class DO NOT take it because they are interested in it, but because of the pressure they get to get into college. Therefore they are not there to discuss important topics, but instead to memorize facts and do well on the AP test (which cots $80...). Students are pressured to take shortcuts instead of caring for the subjects they sign up for. Kids do get interested in discussions... but this is really quenched when thinking unshallowly can get you the same grade. Especially if you're taking more than one AP.

Because of the massive emphasis on testing reading, writing, and mathematics at the early grades, social studies, especially history, as well as science, are getting short shift. They are taught sporadically, if at all. Until history and science are tested at all grade levels, they will not be taught. It is an unfortunate by product of No Child Left Behind.

While testing and the drive for "proficiency" are motivating factors in accenting tested subject matter, and testing in general. There is however, still plenty of time in the average classroom for the teaching of history, and all subjects for that matter. As teachers, we can blame No Child Left Behind, but that is too simplistic. Teaching is still possible and still necessary. It would be greatly facilitated by the scrapping of the standardized testing silliness, but we still control our classrooms.

I would like more comments on the realities of teaching history in elementary, middle and high school. These answers will assist me in framing proposals for media projects I am now engaged in--

I would like to hear specifically from history teachers who think that (a) extending the NCLB mandate to history/social studies is a good idea; or (b) that it is a horrible idea. If you have strong opinions on either side of this fence, please shot me an email at samwineburg at gmail.com. Thanks

In response to Sam: I think there are two sides to this issue of extending the NCLB mandate to history/social studies. On one hand extending the mandate may help align or assist in helping districts map the social studies curriculum. In my doctoral work which examined the impact of history standards on minority populations one of the reoccuring responses from high school students was a)learning the same material repeatedly and b)a lack of focus on anything other than 'the white man's story'. It became apparent that we may be teaching the same foundational historical concepts ad nosium and therefore a reexamination of the curricular map for teaching social studies may be in order. Secondly, the extension of NCLB standards to social studies/history may reinvigorate the lagging popularity of the domain and this area could use a boost. Now, having stated the above, I am not a fan of the NCLB standards as I believe they have turned the art and joy of teaching into a laborius task geared toward 'content coverage' for purpose of testing proficiency. Should the field of social studies/history head in this direction I fear we will lose the esssence of historical pedagogy (or what's left of it)in exchange for a government sponsered, mandatory script of human history.

I disagree that there is time to teach each subject in elementary school under NCLB. The subjects that are taught are the subjects that are tested and sadly for our school, history is not. At our school, history has been "integrated" into reading and the time alloted for science instruction is stolen from in grades 3 and 4.

I find that Mike's analysis and perspective is indeed one that I can relate to quite easily. However, my fear is that one day—in the not so distant future—history and the multitude of academic disciplines that are interrelated are going to be phased out.

Personally, I can think of no greater crime! Just the utterance of the old cliché, "A person who forgets the past has no future" enables me to see a lot of what has been going on with new students each year. Briefly, with all due respect to my colleagues, the students I'm receiving are less savvy than from prior years.

Sam I will write you. Katie, you have a genuine and lovely notion, but I find that parents are far more interested in what they can do than that of their children's future. In fact, I'd argue that the majority of parents I deal with have definitely hit "The Peter Principle" and are really of very little value to their own.

Just one last notion in closing, if one were to observe—heck, even assess—the knowledge level of Geography in most students, I find that basic and general knowledge is abhorrent at best. Oops! I'm definitely a "History Alive!" teacher.

Standardized testing is a way to determine if an individual can understand and manipulate written language. The truth of the matter is that sometimes good test takers lack the social skills needed for survival. Intelligence may be measured by an individual's ability to maneuver their daily lives and survive on a day to day basis. We should reevaluate our obsession with using tests to measure intelligence alone. Some of our most talented people have dyslexia and/or other conditions which disallows them from suceeding on conventional reading and writing standardized exams.

Teaching history, like anything else is a matter of creating a relationship for the students with their past. It is a challenge to teach "white mana's" history to students that are decendants of enslaved people, but there is a relationship there that can be explored. There are also a number of "minority" figures that have had an impact on our history. Frederick Douglas and George Washington Carver are two that come to mind. For the Native Americans, there are many heroes of the various Indian nations that have existed in the US longer than our current one. There were full fledged civilizations in North and South America long before any "discoverers" showed up. The Cherokee Nation created the first successful school system in North America, spurred by a written language, made possible by an alphabet created by one man, Sequoya (the only alphabet ever created by one person).
Standardized testing only serves to make history a series of trivial facts. This is not condusive to learning and is not the answer to the time problem. Testing is the realm of the teacher, not some testing agency. Acountabiliy is just another excuse for wasting education dollars on special interest groups, instead of improving the actual education of our students.

Proficiency test advocates confuse learning with memorizing facts. Until legislators and parents understand the difference, there will continue to be an unwarranted emphasis on standardized testing.

Even in mathematics, which most people view as synonymous with memorizing facts, "learning" can not be measured by such tests. When you ask most adults to divide 1/2 by 1/4, they have little difficulty and believe that they've demonstrated mathematical understanding. All they've demonstrated is procedural knowledge that has little relevance to understanding the mathematical concepts we're supposed to teach. Follow the question above with a second question: "Provide a story to illustrate why the answer is 2." Few people -- including many who hold undergraduate degrees in mathematics! -- will be able to answer correctly. Without that understanding, of what value is the procedural knowledge? More importantly, what value is there in TESTING that computational facility?

If the criticism of standardized tests is true for something as concrete as mathematical concepts, it certainly is true for abstract subjects such as history, civics, economics or any of the social sciences.

Socrates didn't give written assessments for the simple reason that all of his students WANTED to be there. I guess if we could make that attitude universal, most of our education problems would be solved.

The reality of teaching history in high school is the old "mile wide/inch deep" vs. "inch wide/mile deep" approach...is it better to try and cover everything briefly or some things deeply? I would prefer the latter, but standardized testing drives you toward the former.

So, I try the best I can to focus most of my efforts on teaching skills by using historical events and themes the state standards focus upon. Reading non-fiction, evaluating evidence and sources, writing analytically, understanding cause-and-effect...to me, those kinds of things develop better students and citizens than focusing on the endless train of specific events pushed by standards. At least my state's standards.

Ideally, doing that would better student's habits of mind, and the test scores would take care of themselves. Unfortunately, you only have them one semester or one year, and not all of them will come to you ready to fully benefit from that approach, so test scores will tend to drop on average versus trying to cover everything just enough for them to remember it for the state test because they'll get nailed with material they never encountered in class.

Yes, been there, done that.

I think that we are in a difficult position as educators. We are in a place in history where there is so much information that I believe it becomes impossible to determine what historical events, people, places, etc are most important to teach within the limits of the school year. However we have a legacy of knowledge that people need. We know that one of the most important reasons that we teach history, for example, is to learn from the past and make our current decisions based on what we have learned. We have a responsibility to teach the children the information, but a bigger responsibility to teach them how to synthesize and evaluate what they are learning. We need to help them to learn how to find the information that they need and to be able to use it in meaningful ways (not just cutting a pasting into a research paper). A standardized test with multiple choice answers cannot assess these important skills. I do not have an easy solution, but I do know that asking children to select one of four answers to a what can only be recall questions cannot measure what our students really need to leave school with: the ability to receive or find the information that they need and to evaluate and synthesize what they learn, so that it can be put to meaningful use in their lives.

Excellent article. As I prepare college students to teach history/social science, we wrestle with this issue of coverage vs. "uncoverage." Two sources that I have found helpful:1) "Historical Thinking" by Sam Wineburg, and 2) "Understanding by Design" by Wiggins and McTighe. The Wiggins material explores the difference between knowledge and understanding. It offers a practical approach to teaching for understanding that they call "backwards design." The Wineburg book emphasizes that one of the basic purposes of social studies education is to teach students how to think. Your insights fit in nicely with the this emphasis. I really don't think it is all that hard to get away from the problem of "covering" an ever increasing quantity of history content. Back in the 1970s two other teachers and myself created a course we called Contemporary Themes in United States History. Our students learned every bit as much knowledge as the survey students but also developed important skills in critical thinking and learned to see history as an ever changing panorama of varying interpretations. We just have to start assesssing for understanding rather than for factual knowledge.

Tis not the inky cloak alone...It is those who seek loopholes who are the challenge. You see if you are searching for tricks, then who are you? And, what is it you propose to teach? A person who knows the self and its function in and realtionship to the source of all life, need not find loopholes. We ARE all connected. I breathe, you breathe. When the breaths stop, so do the breaths of those they would support.

Standardized history tests in California test random facts. All of ancient history is reduced to 12 questions! According to the framework we must cover everything from Australopithicus to the rise of the Roman Empire in Europe and the great Empires of India and China! The test is given two years later. Does this make sense? To adequately review the sixth grade material students would have to start studying while they're just getting to the Civil War in the eighth grade curriculum. Both areas, therefor, get short shrift. Why can't students be assessed on historical understanding--interpreting charts and graphs, or cause and effect? There certainly are milestones in ancient history every educated person should be able to refer to but there's no agreement on what they are. Teachers are told to emphasize everything.

I am a CA. middle school teacher. Discussion so far has been facinating. I am against expanding testing in general because we are already spending 40%+ of our time on data collection. Presentation of major units is so disjointed, even teachers have difficulty following what we are doing. We began testing social studies a few years back and I am quite appalled by what I have seen on the test. I teach and administer STAR testing to 8th graders. Eighth grade standards and curriculum relate to US history. Yet 50% of the items (all of Section I) have nothing to do with US history. This came to my attention the first year social studies was included when a student called me over and asked what Moses was doing on the test. When I checked out the other items on the section, charitably it was a mishmash of factoids that had nothing do with the grade level curriculum. This section leads--by the time my students, who all qualify for special education services, get to Section II, they are convinced that they are too stupid to live, so why bother. Even if one could argue the memorization and testing of facts has merit, it is impossible to escape the manipulative, unfair practices which are clearly designed to undermine confidence in public education.

NCLB: No child learning better?

November 29, 2007
By the time I entered junior high school, I forfeited all interest in performing well on standardized tests. I would answer enough questions correctly to protect me from an embarrassing score and conclude by mindlessly shading in ovals at random. This allowed me to make progress on whatever book I was reading at the time -- probably "Robinson Crusoe" or "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

The pages of those books were flipped most often during independent reading time at my Lutheran grade school. Every month my classmates and I were required to write a book report.

No multiple choice quizzes were given on the specific meaning or symbolism. Those exams, along with the oddly Stalinist approach of interpreting literature that provides their foundation, would come in high school honors English classes meant for the "good students." Honors English classes went something like this: "We think you are smart enough to earn the right to be told what to think."

» Click to enlarge image


Appreciation for books at Trinity Lutheran did not depend on advanced theoretical arguments that juxtaposed terms like "structuralism" and "postmodernism" while establishing sufficient distance from literary characters to make them invisible.
Those tongue-twisting processes came in college.

Reading and writing for Trinity Lutherans was basic: Read something and be able to write intelligently about it. And don't summarize too much.

This approach allowed me to foster independent thought and cultivate a critical analysis unique to my own ideas and experiences. To put it plainly -- it let me learn to love reading and writing.

A few years ago, President George Bush and a shamefully acquiescent Congress passed an educational reform called No Child Left Behind.

In addition to being the worst-named piece of education legislation in U.S. history, it is also the biggest failure.

Every teacher, education professor and education major I have spoken to understands NCLB's unfortunate reality. The mere mention of NCLB to anyone in education often provokes rolling of eyes, fits of rage or convulsions, depending on the person's temperament.

The State Report Card is in and some schools have slightly improved while others have slightly declined, which adds up to a big "so what?"

Poor districts continue struggling with even the most elementary tasks. Rich districts assume their children will attend fine colleges. The national dropout rate (now at 30 percent) continues rising, and the Chicago Tribune reported that Illinois colleges are requiring many students to take unaccredited remedial courses to prepare for the freshmen curriculum.

USA Today reported that millions of minority test scores were excluded when tallying many report cards, so as to artificially inflate the results. No Child Left Behind is dependent upon Enron style accounting to appear ... mediocre? What a reform.

Many clueless politicians and pundits blather about the greatness of NCLB. "We need accountability in schools," they say.

Fair enough. Maybe eventually we can have learning in schools. But that simple goal cannot be achieved with a No. 2 pencil and a bureaucratically authored form full of ovals to be completed by a student that has been bombarded by a table of facts provided by administrators praying for high test scores.

Tools of learning consist of a good book and sensible teachers that compel children to think for themselves.

If Washington policymakers cannot comprehend this plain truth, they should enroll in a course at Trinity Lutheran, and write a book report.

David Masciotra is a graduate of the University of St. Francis. E-mail him at [email protected]

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