Assessment Commentary

Assessments and Standards: The Case of History

By Theodore K. Rabb — November 19, 2007 6 min read

“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: in our politics, our workplace, and of course our schools. For the latter, the other current buzzword is “proficiency.” After all, assessments are supposed to test a student’s abilities and knowledge.


The difficulty arises from the huge divide between the nature of most assessments and the proficiency they are supposed to demonstrate. Scores have become so meaningless that Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz calls them “an illusion of success that is really nice for everybody in the system except the kids.” With most standardized tests revealing nothing significant about a student’s understanding of a subject, accountability has become a chimera. Any system that promotes mindless “teach to the test” practices (forgotten once the ordeal is over) is inherently a failure. What, then, is the alternative?

I can speak only for my discipline, history, but its needs may be instructive. Like all the humanities, history is boundless. Innate to its study and comprehension is a basic structure—narrative—with many components, encompassing biography, social history, economic change, war, climate, geography, and art. Although for centuries politics was the central focus, during recent decades we have recognized that there are many ways to convey its unique lessons: a sense of perspective; the understanding that, in L.P. Hartley’s words, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”; insights into how our antecedents shape our present; and the habits of mind that help explain patterns of human behavior.

For that agenda, no multiple-choice exam is going to demonstrate proficiency worthy of the name. Like the SAT tests, which now rely on essays to assess competence, historians need writing exercises to evaluate proficiency. And the variety of history makes flexibility essential.

Flexibility is crucial for another reason. Students think history boring because of the straitjacket imposed by a lockstep curriculum, supported by tedious textbooks, 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 prepackaged “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. There is no standard set of events and issues that enables us to understand the past. This false belief prevents teachers from conveying their individual passions and interests to their students.

Making matters worse is a basic mistrust of teachers, as if flexibility might encourage private hobbyhorses rather than serious concerns. The result is boredom for both instructors and pupils. Unless our teachers can teach what they love, confident that every kind of history is equally an entryway into the past, the subject will never take hold of their students’ minds.

There is no standard set of events and issues that enables us to understand the past.

For the sake of argument, let us imagine six middle school classes on American history through 1900, with instructors more thoroughly grounded in history than, sadly, is true in many schools 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.

One can predict that each in turn would bring to life the battlefields of the French and Indian War, the rise of Andrew Jackson, the changing dynamics of family life from Salem to Salt Lake City, the roots of Manifest Destiny, the vision of the Transcendentalists, or the building of America’s railroads. That they would give somewhat less time to one another’s subjects is less important than the effect on their students of their engagement with the past. The latter would learn far more about the workings of history, and the intellectual skills and enjoyment it can inspire, than if forced to plough through a mound of worthy but impersonal information.

Assessments of such vivid instruction would require no less flexibility. Granted, there would have to be a limit on the number of different approaches to the past, but six would not be unreasonable. Moreover, this way of both teaching and testing history should put to rest the concern, a relic of America’s “culture wars,” that the subject is so “controversial” that it is better to ignore it than take it on. By avoiding any one “right” method of looking at the past, we allow all the flowers to bloom. How, then, should these assessments be devised?

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

“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.

Unless teachers can teach what they love, the subject will never take hold of their students’ minds.

The correct answer, (C), requires no more than decoding (not even reading with understanding) the passage’s 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. Similar paragraphs—an account of the Battle of Gettysburg for military history, a paragraph from Emerson for intellectual history, and so forth—would be alternatives to the passage by Lincoln. Half a dozen such questions, answered by half a dozen short paragraphs, would demonstrate proficiency beyond doubt.

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

Which brings us, finally, to standards. None of this 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.

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Assessments and Standards: The Case of History


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