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From Socrates to Standardized Testing: Teaching is About More Than Multiple Choice

Despite what state departments of education and school districts have prescribed in the last several years, the result of successful instruction in any subject is about much more than scoring ‘Advanced’ on the standardized test. The wishful thinking of the education czars, for teachers to teach the entirety of the state’s extensive and sometimes arbitrary list of state standards, diminishes the richness of historical learning and understanding.

Thankfully, I have been able to maintain the philosophy that there is an importance to providing as many opportunities for learning as possible, despite the pressure to focus mainly on the standardized tests to which my district and state are so strongly attached. Throughout the school year, my students have several ways to demonstrate knowledge. A day, a week, or a unit will include (1) diagnostic assessments, which determine what students already know or remember from the previous lesson so I can decide where to resume, (2) formative assessments, which allow me to check for understanding and make sure that students are on track for the eventual (3) summative assessments, which require my students to demonstrate their understanding of the unit’s “Big Picture”.

Each method provides me with an understanding of where I should start each day.

I believe the best way to accomplish the above-mentioned assessments requires a variety of methods. For example, a diagnostic assessment could be simple dialogue/oral response interactions where students are speaking and listening to each other review what they already know, or I will ask questions while the students use mini-white boards, which they hold up for me to read when they have the answer written. Each method provides me with an understanding of where I should start each day.

Throughout a unit students will be given selected response chances, which take the form of multiple-choice, true/false, as well as short-answer questions. These are quick assessments that check for the historical understanding necessary to progress further with the subject matter. Toward the end of a unit students can create graphic organizers or diagrams pertaining to the covered material in order to place concepts in a pattern or spectrum that makes sense to the student. This helps prepare them for the unit-ending project that gives them an opportunity to synthesize the knowledge they have gained over the last several weeks. Providing students with a variety of assessments gives me the ability to compare one method’s outcome to the next. For example, a student who is unable to demonstrate historical understanding within the confines of one assignment’s structure could succeed when given the chance with another style of assessment.

The times and types of assessment are different, but what remains the same is a process of assessment which serves as a guide to determine one’s ability.

Although “Socrates never gave grades,” he was assessed for his success or lack thereof. Remember, one of the reasons he was killed was for his perceived lack of success with students. California teachers don’t have it as bad as Socrates, but we are given the charge of teaching all children, not just the “elite” of society.

Had Socrates been a teacher within the model of American public education, he would have been teaching not only an aristocrat’s son, like Plato, but the marble cutter’s daughter as well. Instead of 10-15 students he would have over 125. The times and types of assessment are different, but what remains the same is a process of assessment which serves as a guide to determine one’s ability. Socrates interviewed many people in Athens to discern if there actually was someone who “knew” more than he did as the Oracle of Delphi had denied. Today, our students take different types of tests, which tell teachers which student actually “knows” the most. In each case, guides (inquiries, tests, standardized assessments, etc.) are being used to demonstrate the level of one’s knowledge. Assessment was traditionally focused on the student.

Today, assessments are used to guide the student, but also teachers, parents, districts, and states. If the assessment process is going to include such a diverse audience it is imperative to use as many methods as possible. What is indisputable is that there will never be a process of assessment that is set in stone. Like the classrooms that have graced education’s landscape from the Golden Age of Athens until now, methods of assessing students will be transformed and reshaped into whatever form that generation chooses them to be.