Education Opinion

Everything Hinges on Assessment

By Justin Reich — September 14, 2012 2 min read
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When I was in Singapore, one of the most common refrains that I heard from educators was “assessment drives behavior.” For Singaporeans, that meant that policy and curriculum reforms were typically constrained (or unleashed) by assessment. Real change in teaching and learning requires real change in assessment.

Along the same lines, Chris Dede, one of the architects of the National Education Technology Plan, has a great comment (in this video) that of all the parts of the National Ed Tech Plan—learning, assessment, teaching, productivity, R&D—none matters more than assessment. Unless we get assessment right, none of the other changes will happen. (Chris Dede is perhaps the most quotable scholar in education technology. He is a wellspring of pithy statements.)

So I was pleased to get a note from Sam Wineburg, the director of the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), unveiling his new project: Beyond the Bubble. Beyond the Bubble is a collection of short, formative assessments that require students to examine and interpret a wide variety of historical documents. Students engage with a digital primary source from the extensive collections of the Library of Congress, and then compose a brief constructed response designed to elicit evidence of students’ specific historical thinking skills.

Wineburg’s team has a lovely introduction to their project that expresses one of the key dilemmas of assessment, specific to history education but germane to all K-12 subjects:

A Poverty of Imagination An absence of creativity characterizes the testing industry. At one end of the spectrum are multiple-choice tests that rip facts out of context and penalize students for not knowing things they can instantly Google. At the other end are tasks like the "Document-Based Question" (DBQ) of the Advanced Placement exam, often considered the gold standard of history testing. The DBQ is a useful assessment if your students can already handle the analysis of eight to ten primary documents and write a college-level essay.... But what if your students can't yet read one document? ... Beyond the Bubble addresses this quandary. Many of our assessments can be completed in just a few minutes. Others take longer but still less time than an hour-long DBQ. Compared to blackened circles on a Scantron, short written responses provide a window to what students think - the very information you need to make adjustments in your teaching. We need formative assessments in the history classroom--assessments that allow us to make daily changes in our instruction--not just end-of-course tests.

The Beyond the Bubble assessments are available under a Creative Commons license, take only a few minutes for students to complete and for teachers to score, and evaluate a wide range of historical thinking skills: sourcing, contextualization, corroboration, periodization, and others.

The assessments themselves, however, are only the beginning. For each assessment, there are evaluation rubrics, and annotated examples of student work for each rubric. The student work is marked with blue circles, which when moused over provide insights from the evaluators.

Each assessment also has a short “going deeper” video, explaining details of the assessment’s design, the skills evaluated, and other relevant background information.

Finally, with each assessment, there is space for teachers to comment, downloadable handouts, and links to the original sources at the Library of Congress.

There isn’t any published research about the efficacy of these assessments readily available on the site, though I’m sure Wineburg’s team has stuff in the works. But they seem to very deliberately scaffold some of the most important skills and strategies that historians use to weigh and evaluate diverse forms of evidence.

More broadly, the SHEG team is tackling one of the most important questions in education right now: how do we leverage new technologies to develop new forms of assessment that can truly change instructional practice. History educators should take plenty of time to dig into Beyond the Bubble, and imagine how these formative assessments would help develop students’ content knowledge in parallel with their historical thinking skills.

I look forward to seeing the Beyond the Bubble project develop, and kudos to the SHEG team for a promising new resource.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

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