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Assessing the Teaching of History

By James M. Banner Jr. — July 14, 2009 6 min read
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History no longer makes the kind of news it did some years ago, when the discipline was often the subject of contentious school reform debates. Today, history seems lost in the commotion about making sure we “leave no child behind” in English and mathematics. Yet despite this low profile, history scholars, teachers, and practitioners are quietly gaining ground in the struggle to push beyond the tangle of obstacles that stand in the way of improved history teaching and learning.

How are they doing this? Their work involves national efforts aimed at improving history teachers’ skills, encouraging classroom instructors to think of themselves as historians while being teachers, and strengthening state and national standards and measurements of students’ historical knowledge.

Arm in arm with cognitive scientists and ethnographers, they’re also creating the foundations of knowledge about how young people learn history, how teachers present it, and thus how best to introduce a lasting understanding of the past into people’s minds.

If states wish to gain fuller knowledge of the fruits of their history standards and the quality of history instruction in their schools, the adoption of a wider array of testing methods is a must.

All along, too, historians have been trying to develop effective ways to make their influence felt in the creation, revision, and implementation of public policies that affect history classrooms. Their best-known efforts, caught up in the ideological firefights of recent decades, were focused on the development of national and state history standards. More recently, however, they’ve begun to venture farther afield and onto terrain somewhat less mined with political ordnance.

Under the auspices of the National History Center, I managed in 2008 a project to capture and evaluate the current state of history-assessment regimes in representative states. I relied on the expertise of some of the nation’s most knowledgeable and experienced scholars and practitioners of history education policy. Six of them prepared papers on the background, strengths, and weaknesses of history assessment programs in six states. Little in this vein had been written about those states’ history assessments before. None of the authors had known much about the assessment situations in states other than their own.

When we met together later, it was clear that some general findings had emerged from their research, and that the authors were in agreement about what now ought, and ought not, to be done. What follows is a summary of their conclusions.

The principle behind all history assessments is one that ought to pertain to every subject in every school: History standards, history assessments, and instructional practices in history classrooms go hand in hand. No history assessment regime is worth instituting otherwise. Of what good are history standards and assessments of their effectiveness unless both improve teachers’ history instruction? Yet not always is students’ historical knowledge assessed against the standards that states have themselves adopted. This makes no sense.

It turns out also that some history assessments fail to measure what every practicing teacher of history knows to be the twinned goals of history instruction—a gain in students’ historical knowledge and a gain in historical thinking. Some state assessments continue to measure one to the exclusion of the other. The result in such cases is an invalid measure of the effectiveness of history teaching.

Similarly, many assessment protocols also are overreliant on multiple-choice tests, often ill-designed at that, to measure students’ competency and progress. On grounds of proven utility and economy, such tests have a place in assessment regimes. Yet now, in states like Massachusetts, Illinois, and California, multiple-choice tests dominate assessments; in Virginia, they are the sole testing method.

What’s not able to be tested by the multiple-choice method are abilities fundamental to historical knowledge and thought: writing well, constructing arguments, reading critically, assessing evidence, understanding historical change and the “pastness” of the past. We can’t expect all states to use writing samples and portfolios to measure students’ competencies, as does New York’s celebrated Regents exams. They’re expensive and difficult to evaluate, and the residents of no other state are likely to think of such exams as New Yorkers do: as part of their state’s self-definition. But if states wish to gain fuller knowledge of the fruits of their history standards and the quality of history instruction in their schools, the adoption of a wider array of testing methods is a must.

Another problem with most current history assessments is that they diminish the professional independence of teachers, already at too much of a discount. Like all other professionals who merit that title, teachers must be free to teach according to their particular skills, dispositions, and judgments and not be straitjacketed into curricula calibrated to assessments. Only teachers know what’s best for their particular students at any particular time. Therefore, any assessment regime that limits history teachers’ independence to decide how best to teach their students so that they meet a state’s history standards is a threat to the quality of teaching in individual classrooms.

Public commitment to continuing teacher education must accompany this professional latitude. Otherwise, we assess students’ knowledge conveyed by insufficiently prepared teachers, which makes no sense. This means that funds must not be diverted to assessment tests and away from the regular maintenance and increase of history teachers’ own knowledge. When and where that diversion happens—or where, as in Illinois, no funding at all is provided for history teachers’ continuing professional improvement—students, not teachers, are the ultimate losers.

With all the money spent on history assessments, it turns out we know little about their effectiveness. More research into the value of assessments, as well as adequate state and federal funding for this research, is critically needed. We don’t know, for example, whether high scores on history tests predict success in college history classrooms, and we don’t understand which kinds of assessments are the best predictors. Nor do we know enough about the impact of assessments on history instruction in the classroom, and thus on students. As things now stand, some states are throwing money at history assessments but may in effect be throwing that money away. Only further research, such as that now being pursued in Virginia, can tell us if history testing is actually promoting the best teaching in schools.

Too often, history teachers and academic historians are closed out of the process that develops history assessments. It’s as if the U.S. Treasury Department were to develop banking regulations without talking with bankers, or the Pentagon were to design battlefield tactics without consulting field commanders. Kansas and California are pleasing exceptions in this regard. Usually, however, the development of history assessments is driven by political and ideological considerations and affected by lobbying and other pressures. The only way to introduce some measure of balance and professional integrity into a process now often dominated by amateurs and the inexperienced is to make academic and school historians integral to assessment development and in large enough numbers.

None of these necessary improvements in history assessments will be easy to achieve, nor will such changes be achieved quickly or without some additional cost. But if we care about the nation’s young people and their ability to understand their own and others’ past—and thus their own circumstances—we have no choice but to make major improvements in assessing history teaching. Historians are poised to contribute to the realization of these improvements. The question is whether responsible officials in the states are ready to join them.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Assessing the Teaching of History

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