Statement on State History Assessments

As partners with the National History Education Clearinghouse, the Center has prepared an in-depth study of one topic of special interest to history teachers. The Center commissioned six papers to deal with the “Special Topic Analysis” on this year’s focus: State assessment of students’ historical understanding.

How do states produce and organize their history assessment tools and schemes? Trying to answer this question, the Center commissioned six authors to focus on history assessment in their states. The states examined were: California, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. Below is the statement issued by the National History Center concerning assessment, as well as the six individual papers.

Click here to download the History Assessment Statement

Click here to download Michael Bruner paper on Kansas’ history assessments

Click here to download Steven Cohen paper Massachusetts’ history assessments

Click here to download Frederick Drake’s paper on Illinois’s history assessments

Click here to download Bradley Fogo’s paper on California’s history assessments

Click here to download Henry Kiernan’s paper on New York’s history assessments

Click here to download Stephanie van Hover’s paper on Virginia’s history assessments

Statement on State History Assessments

Assessments of history teaching and of students’ knowledge of the past take place on many levels—in federal, state, and local arenas and in individual schools. In recent years, due to federal mandates, to the adoption of state-level history standards, and to pressures from many directions, numerous states have developed regimes to assess the progress of history instruction in their schools. In independent studies accompanying this statement, we have examined the history assessment regimes of six states—California, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. On the basis of these studies, we offer the following observations and urge the following departures:

1. No history assessment regime will be worth instituting unless it emerges from a set of history standards, and no history assessment regime will be effective unless its results are employed to influence the improvement of history teaching in schools. That is, history assessments should not exist in the absence either of history standards or of a system for using them to affect history instruction.

2. Effective history instruction must involve two aims—teaching knowledge of the past and inculcating habits of mind regarding other times, places, and peoples, change over time, and the “pastness” of the past. Consequently, history assessments must measure both competencies—of knowledge and of historical thinking. Only by doing both can there be established the necessary links between history standards and history teaching, and only then can assessments effectively be used to measure students’ abilities and to provide the basis for the remediation of weaknesses in history instruction.

3. Most, though not all, history assessments employ multiple-choice tests to measure students’ competency and progress. Such tests have a place in any assessment regime. They are cost effective; if carefully constructed (though often they are not), they provide one measure of students’ knowledge. However, multiple-choice tests are now overused and, as in Massachusetts, Illinois, and California, are often the dominant approach. Sole reliance on them, as in Virginia, makes impossible the measurement of the other skills—such as writing well, constructing arguments, reading critically, and assessing evidence—that are fundamental to historical knowledge and thinking. Additional testing methods, such as writing samples and portfolios, exist. (New York, for example, is one of several states that include essay writing in their state assessments.) While more expensive than multiple-choice tests, in combination with multiple-choice testing these methods reveal more, and test more deeply, than multiple-choice tests alone. 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.

4. While we support the creation and adoption of history standards and the assessment of history teaching—both with a view to improving students’ knowledge of the past and their ability to think historically—we also worry that state history assessment programs reduce the professional independence of teachers. Teachers must be able to teach as their honed skills and judgment allow. They must be free to decide what is best for their particular students. Therefore, any assessment regime that limits history teachers’ independence to decide how best to teach their particular students so that they meet a state’s history standards is a threat to the quality of teaching in individual classrooms.

5. History standards and assessments are not worth their development if teachers are not provided with the resources and preparation to use them. That is, if too many public funds are devoted to history assessments at the expense of strong continuing teacher education, students and the quality of the teaching they are exposed to suffer. States, like Illinois, that assess history instruction without providing teachers with the funding and opportunities to maintain and increase their knowledge and skills are doing their teachers and students no service.

6. Along with funds for continuing history teaching education, both states and the federal government must undertake research into the value of assessments. We simply know too little about an approach to which the nation devotes significant resources Do high student scores on certain kind of assessments predict success in college history classrooms? What impact do high-stakes testing regimes have on the content and character of the history curriculum that teachers follow and through which students learn about the past? While state departments of education have invested millions of dollars to create standardized assessments of students’ historical knowledge, seldom have they investigated the effects of state testing on classroom instruction. Until such research is undertaken (as some is now being undertaken in Virginia), we have little evidence to suggest that such testing is promoting beneficial ways to teach and learn history.

7. In too many states (Kansas being a pleasing exception and Virginia now inviting teachers into the process), neither history teachers nor academic historians have been involved in the preparation of history standards and history assessments. This is like failing to ask military forces to develop their strategies and tactics or to determine what resources they need to fight a war. Instead, the development of history assessments are often driven by political considerations and affected by lobbying and other pressures. While in an open society no public project can or should be insulated from citizens’ involvement, it is essential that in the development of history assessments greater professional knowledge be brought to bear and external influence be kept to a minimum. One of the best ways to achieve these ends is to make academic historians and history teachers integral to the assessment process—and in sufficient numbers.

Michael L. Bruner
Chanute High School
Chanute, Kansas
President, Kansas Council for History Education

Steven David Cohen
Lecturer in Education
Adjunct Professor of History
Tufts University

Frederick D. Drake
Professor of History, Emeritus
Illinois State University

Bradley Fogo
PhD Candidate
School of Education
Stanford University

Henry Kiernan
Bellmore-Merrick (NY) Central High School District

Stephanie van Hover
Associate Professor of Social Studies Education
Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education
Curry School of Education
University of Virginia