ERIC Identifier: ED412170
Publication Date: 1997-06-00
Author: Drake, Frederick D.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
Using Alternative Assessments To Improve the Teaching and
Learning of History. ERIC Digest.
A history teacher's curriculum planning, choice of classroom methodology, and
means to assess student learning are inextricably linked. Forms of assessment
that involve only recall of discrete information are likely to encourage
teaching methods that emphasize low-level cognition. Further, traditional forms
of assessing students' knowledge of history neither prompt students to reveal
all they know about the subject nor challenge them to learn more. Thus, teachers
and researchers have concluded that traditional assessments must be complemented
by new methods that can reinvigorate and improve the teaching and learning of
history in schools.
ALTERNATIVE ASSESSMENTS AND HISTORICAL LITERACY
assessment can be a diagnostic tool to improve both a teacher's instruction and
a student's learning of history by revealing information about three dimensions
of a student's historical literacy. First, students who complete alternative
assessment activities demonstrate their knowledge of historical facts, themes,
and ideas. Second, students who complete alternative assessment activities
demonstrate their ability to reason; that is, to analyze, evaluate, and
synthesize historical evidence. And third, students who complete alternative
assessment activities demonstrate their ability to communicate their historical
knowledge and reasoning to others.
Each dimension of a student's historical literacy has its own important
characteristics that provide the structural frame teachers need to create an
alternative assessment activity for their students. Knowledge of historical
evidence is the prerequisite students need to demonstrate their ability in the
other two dimensions. The Bradley Commission's "Vital Themes and Narratives" is
a conceptual scheme that helps students organize their knowledge of the past.
These themes serve as filters to help students differentiate between what is
important and what is insignificant in the historical record. They provide
direction for students to accurately identify, define, and describe important
concepts, facts, and details. (The Bradley Commission on History in the Schools
Historical facts and themes, approached through informed questions, are
points of departure for demonstrating a student's ability to reason. Reasoning
makes the facts and themes meaningful and thereby brings about a deeper
understanding of the subject. Reasoning certainly involves critical thinking and
requires students to discover relationships among facts and generalizations, and
values and opinions, as a means to provide a solution to a problem, to make a
judgment, or to reach a logical conclusion.
Historical reasoning ought to be the principal aim of historical study and
alternative assessment. The National History Standards (1996, 14-24) distinguish
historical reasoning or thinking and historical understanding. The latter
defines what students should know; the former makes it possible for students to
differentiate between past, present, and future; raise questions; seek and
evaluate evidence; compare and analyze historical illustrations, records, and
stories; interpret the historical record; and construct historical narratives of
their own. The Bradley Commission's "Habits of Mind" provides a useful
conceptualization of historical reasoning, such as the ability of students to
understand the significance of the past and the present to their own lives; to
perceive events and issues as they were experienced by people at the time; and
to recognize the importance of individuals who have made a difference (Bradley
Commission on History in the Schools 1988, and Gagnon 1989, 25-26).
Effective communication of historical knowledge and historical reasoning
requires a student to organize, interpret, and express his or her thoughts. In
recounting events of the past, a student must develop a clearly defined thesis
and create an interesting narrative that tells what happened in an informed way.
A well-organized presentation supplies relevant examples to support its main
ideas and offers conclusions and a synthesis based on an analysis of historical
sources. Furthermore, evidence of a student's knowledge and reasoning must
always be apparent in an effective presentation. Alternative assessment in
history offers a wide variety of ways for students to communicate their
knowledge and reasoning: analyzing a primary source; drawing political cartoons;
creating newspapers; participating in historical simulations; and writing
As teachers create assessment activities they should ask the following
* Does the activity match my teaching goals?
* Does the activity adequately reflect the "Vital Themes and Narratives" in
its organization of the historical content and the "Habits of Mind" that I
expect my students to use in thinking about the past?
* Does the activity enable my students to demonstrate their development in
historical knowledge, reasoning, and communication?
* Does the activity motivate students to demonstrate their capabilities?
A GENERIC RUBRIC FOR ALTERNATIVE ASSESSMENT ACTIVITIES
decades, good history teachers have been using projects and activities requiring
students to blend skills and knowledge across disciplines. Often, the problem
has been assessing the activity. Critics have rightly cautioned that alternative
assessment is susceptible to corruptibility, possible lack of sensitivity to
cultural and linguistic diversity, and psychometric issues such as
generalizability and reliability. We should be aware of these important
problems, but a more immediate concern for classroom teachers is: Will the
teacher need to create a new rubric for each assessment activity?
Recently, a generic "History Rubric for Alternative Assessment" has been
developed to help teachers assess their students' knowledge, reasoning skills,
and communication skills (Drake and McBride 1997). It is an analytic rubric
which allows a history teacher to assess simultaneously student performance in
each of the three interrelated dimensions: knowledge, reasoning skills, and
Each dimension of the rubric is divided into six levels. Each level is
defined by several criteria which reflect a student's abilities and skills.
Collectively, levels 6, 5, and 4 are designed to differentiate among students
whose knowledge, reasoning skills, and communication skills are developed.
Collectively, 3, 2, and 1 represent knowledge, reasoning skills, and
communication skills that are still developing. Level 6 represents work of a
student who exhibits the most developed knowledge and skills; level 1 represents
the work of a student with the lowest level of developing knowledge and skills.
HOW ALTERNATIVE ASSESSMENT IMPROVES THE TEACHING AND LEARNING
A "History Rubric for Alternative Assessment" is especially
appropriate and useful for assessment in history education, because the rubric
benefits teachers and students alike. Teachers know that their students may
perform at a more or less developed level in one dimension than in another. For
example, when a student analyzes a primary source document he or she may
demonstrate knowledge at a level 6, reasoning at a level 5, and communication at
a level 3. An analytic rubric allows teachers to take these differences into
account when assessing their students. An analytic rubric benefits students by
showing them their strengths and weaknesses in each dimension. Thereby, they
learn where they must place their time and effort to improve their historical
knowledge, reasoning skills, and communication skills.
The effective use of a rubric requires planning and practice by teachers and
students alike. Moreover, teachers must share the rubric with their students
because it contains the criteria that students will have to meet as they
construct historical knowledge, engage in historical reasoning, and communicate
what they know and understand. Successful acquisition of knowledge and
development of skills in reasoning and communication demands that both teachers
and students know in advance the criteria they are seeking in each dimension,
and that the students are coached about the best ways to demonstrate their
abilities. For teachers, the rubric serves as a diagnostic tool; for students,
it establishes the parameters for attaining success.
As students attempt initially to meet the criteria of an alternative
assessment activity, they may achieve developed levels (level 6, 5, or 4) in one
dimension (knowledge, reasoning skills, and communication skills), while
achieving a developing level (3, 2, or 1) in the other dimensions. Reference to
the rubric during consultation with their teacher will help students to organize
their historical knowledge and reasoning and to consider ways to communicate
effectively what they know and think about the past.
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES
Airasian, Peter W.
ASSESSMENT IN THE CLASSROOM. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.
The Bradley Commission on History in the Schools. BUILDING A HISTORY
CURRICULUM: GUIDELINES FOR TEACHING HISTORY IN SCHOOLS. Washington, DC:
Educational Excellence Network: 1988. ED 310 008.
Drake, Frederick D., and Lawrence W. McBride. "Reinvigorating the Teaching of
History through Alternative Assessment." THE HISTORY TEACHER 30 (February 1997):
145-173. EJ number to be assigned.
Gagnon, Paul, and Others, eds. HISTORICAL LITERACY: THE CASE FOR HISTORY IN
AMERICAN EDUCATION. New York: MacMillan, 1989. ED 384 554.
The National Center for History in the Schools. NATIONAL STANDARDS FOR
HISTORY. Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools, 1996. ED 399
Perrone, Vito, ed. EXPANDING STUDENT ASSESSMENT. Alexandria, VA: Association
for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1991. ED 337 489.
Shephard, Lorrie. "Why We Need Better Assessments." EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP 46
(April 1989): 4-9. EJ 387 134.
Wiggins, Grant. "Assessment: Authenticity, Context, and Validity." PHI DELTA
KAPPAN 75 (November 1993): 200-08, 210-14. EJ 472 587.
Wiggins, Grant. THE CASE FOR AUTHENTIC ASSESSMENT. ERIC Digest. Washington,
DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Tests, Measurements, and Evaluation, 1990. ED 328 611.