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Assessments and Standards: The Case of History

“Assessment” and “accountability” are the current buzzwords in education. In an ideal world, evaluation would be unnecessary. Socrates never gave grades. But in our imperfect world, mechanisms of judgment are everywhere.

Most standardized tests today reveal nothing significant about a student’s understanding. Consequently, accountability has become a chimera. Any system that promotes mindless “teach to the test” practices is inherently a failure. What, then, is the alternative?

Innate to historical study and comprehension is a basic structure—narrative—with many components. Although for centuries politics was the central focus, during recent decades we have recognized that there are many ways to convey the unique insights and understandings that history requires.

For that agenda no multiple-choice exam will demonstrate proficiency worthy of the name. What is needed is flexibility.

Students think history boring because of the straitjacket imposed by a lockstep curriculum that promotes "teaching to the text." It is futile to present a single “history” or believe that “coverage” is attainable. Nevertheless, current practices force teachers to trudge through pre-packaged “important” information that their students have to memorize on the assumption that history is a fixed body of knowledge. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our teachers should teach what they love.

For the sake of argument, let us imagine six middle school classes on American history through 1900, with instructors more grounded in history than, sadly, many are today. One teacher enjoys conflict, war, and peacemaking; another the ups and downs of presidential politics; a third changes in family relations, the role of women, and the upbringing of children; a fourth America’s growing stature in world affairs; a fifth the importance of artists, writers, and thinkers; and a sixth the impact of technology, economic development, and science. All use primary sources, and all bring their students through the three centuries. Assuming that each class examines—not through identical details, but rather in terms of the larger issues—a common core of subjects (the process of settlement, the march to independence, westward expansion, and civil war and reconstruction), and does justice to the full sweep of American history, there could be no more enlivening mandate than to encourage the six teachers to give added attention to the kinds of history closest to their hearts.

Assessments of such vivid instruction would require flexibility. By avoiding any one “right” method of looking at the past, we allow all the flowers to bloom. How, then, should these assessments look?

One can learn from an example of what not to do. Here is an instance from the 2006 history test by the National Assessment of Educational Progress:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided.”

—Abraham Lincoln, 1858

What did Abraham Lincoln mean in this speech?
(A) The South should be allowed to separate from the United States.
(B) The government should support slavery in the South.
(C) Sometime in the future slavery would disappear from the United States.
(D) Americans would not be willing to fight a war over slavery.

The correct answer, C), requires no more than decoding (not even reading with understanding) the three sentences. It demands no knowledge of Lincoln’s changing views or policies on slavery, nor of the larger issues involved in the Civil War. It exemplifies the mindlessness encouraged by limited multiple-choice exams.

The alternative is to require at least a paragraph to explain the significance or historical importance of a text. In this case, those following presidential politics might comment on the first paragraph of Lincoln’s 1858 speech. They would have to recognize that this was part of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and place that encounter in the context of its times.

It is true that such tests would cost more to administer, and money for education is always precarious. But either we are serious about assessment and accountability, or we accept data on proficiency that obscure more than they reveal.

No improvement can happen while individual states set standards for history consisting of a menu of information—a sure formula for “teaching to the test.” Beyond a basic core of knowledge, with a few fundamental themes that would not be difficult to identify, state standards should concentrate on historical understanding. To do that, they would have to offer the flexibility in subject matter that has been outlined here. Anything less is to deprive generations of schoolchildren of the joy and insight that, for centuries, have rewarded the study of history.

(This is an excerpt from Theodore K. Rabb, "Assessments and Standards: The Case of History," Education Week 27 no. 13 (2007): 28, 36.)