Assessments are tricky for all types of curriculum, social studies is no different. No matter what your teaching philosophy, at the end of the quarter and/or semester, students must have some symbol of their completing the course. There are many educational debates that focus on grading and assessment, with impassioned factions and philosophies turning discussion into argument.
In this article, I will explain how I assessed and use grades in a United States History course. I will also describe the use of common assessments, which is an assessment that is given by teachers that teach the same curriculum but not the same students.
My Philosophy of Assessment and Grading
I believe in grading for mastery and skills based grading. Grading for mastery simply means that students must master a concept or level of learning before they move onto something new. At some point, all students will encounter failure or confusion when learning a new concept, and most of them will do poorly on a test. When employing a grading for mastery philosophy, the teacher allows the students to fail, relearn, and take the exam again, with no grade penalty for needing to retake the exam.
Grading for mastery also connects to standardized grading, which is the belief that only grades that directly relate to the state mandated standards should be in the gradebook. This means that I do not have grades for behaviors, such as respect in the classroom, attendance, or late work. I also do not give extra credit based on students completing busy work or doing something for the classroom, such as supplying the class with tissues. I do this because I believe a grade should represent what a student has mastered, in the case of my previous U.S. History classroom’s case, the ability to master my history standards.
“Social studies skills can be graded through any action.”
Skill Based Grading is the belief that students must show competence in their ability to analyze, evaluate, and create something based on a method of inquiry and/or a social studies skill. This verbage comes from Bloom’s Taxonomy, and mastery means the students can operate at the highest level with that standard. In my 8th grade U.S. History classroom, students showed mastery by analyzing a source, creating answers, and supporting their results with evidence and rational. I have an example of this in an article series I wrote; the first article can be found at Part I: Teaching with Primary Sources and Skills Based Assessment.
My students were assessed weekly, but the exams were not the type that possessed dozens of definitions, facts, and dates that needed to be memorized. In fact, I did not use the word “exam” or “test” in my classroom except for the one vocabulary test I gave each quarter (this test could also be retaken as many times as the student wanted). Students were formally assessed while they were completing online and in-person discussion, during Socratic Seminars, while they were taking notes on a certain concept, and during more formal writing prompts in which they analyzed primary sources. Students who did not like their grade or did not pass (below a D) were allowed to reassess, in a different format if they wanted. The result was students who wanted to pass my class and learn got to, and none of my students could say that the assessments were unfair, because they could retake them.
I would use videos like this to help students with primary source analysis.
The most formal of my assessments was analysis of sources in order to answer a question that tied to a standard, the above lesson plan has more detailed information. Students were expected to show mastery of standards by applying analysis skills they learned throughout the week. In addition, the students were allowed to use their notes from what they learned about analyzing throughout the week during their graded analysis. Sometimes the primary source I mentioned earlier in the week would be used in the graded analysis to corroborate against other evidence. Whether it was through analysis of sources, or any other method, the students knew my expectation was for them to show me higher order thinking.
My gradebook was organized into six categories: (1) Sourcing/Summarizing, (2) Corroboration, (3) Monitoring/Questioning, (4) Contextualization, (5) Inferring/Close Reading, and (6) Memorization/Recall. The first five categories were weighted at 17% each, and memorization/recall had a weight of 15%.
Throughout the week, I would introduce a topic, students would listen to brief lectures and read secondary sources for context, and I would give them sources to analyze. All of the activities that built up to the assessment were graded as stepping stones to reaching mastery. For example, note taking, discussion, small reflections, and in-class participation could be graded as students became closer to understanding a concept.
After students completed weekly activities, they would perform an independent analysis of a source in order to answer a question or prompt. An answer that was original, used evidence, and connected evidence to answers was graded as mastered.
The four years I was teaching eighth grade, I was required to give a common assessment to my class three times. My Common Assessment was created between the other U.S. History teacher and myself; it was one of the first things I had to do when coming into the school. With the stresses of the first year, my colleague and I decided to create a test based on recall/memorization knowledge; we used questions from the chapter assessments of our school issued textbook. After the first year, I wanted to change the common assessment because it did not assess critical thinking; my colleague disagreed. We ended up having to get a consultation from our principal because we could not agree on the test. The common assessment next to this paragraph, and in this paragraph, is the result of our compromise: a test that included some analysis, but remained heavy on recall/memorization type questions.
I was not happy with this type of common assessment, but when working with another teacher, I compromised. My students passed the common assessment each year, and did as well or better than the other teacher’s students. If I were still working in the same district, with the same teacher, I would show them the research and reading I have done that proves recall/memorization exams do not work, and the other academic sources that show focusing on mastery of skills and critical thinking will provide social studies students with a lifetime of benefits.
Required Common Assessments Each Week
Yesterday, a colleague told me about a “common assessment plan” that her school district was planning to implement next year. The end goal is for teachers who cover the same classes to have a similar assessment each week. This would take a few years to fully implement; this year the school will have teachers give the same common assessment for one unit.
For clarity, information about the school is necessary. My colleague works for a middle school, grades 6-8, and each grade has two teams of core teachers (Math, Science, Language Arts, and Social Studies). There are two teachers for each class; for example there are two U.S. History teachers in the eighth grade. The school has about 200-250 students per grade and the students are divided between the two teams of each grade. Which means that 50% of the students in each grade will receive instruction from one social studies teacher, but not the other. Currently, the school does not have an official plan for collaboration among teachers who teach the same curriculum. Some core classes do work with one another, others do not.
Dangers of Common Assessments
I think two teachers who have the same content should be working together, and even more that just sharing resources. Teachers could share students, both giving lectures, assessing students, and providing opportunities for them. One teacher could be teaching an enrichment lesson to students, while their counterpart is offering an opportunity to retake an assessment. Teachers working in this way would benefit their students, and have a much healthier relationship. Some may cry out that teacher autonomy would be lost, but the idea of teachers freely teaching does not automatically equate to good teaching. We all had teachers who were terrible; I had them at every level of my education. Now that I have been involved with teaching for over ten years, I think many teachers are “bad” because they work alone; no one forced them to work with others.
Local educators and I created a learning event for 8th grade students.
I do like the idea of administration taking a stand on certain issues in teaching and ensuring best practices are being implemented. That being said, I fear these common assessments would merely be another test that requires students to circle the box or pick the correct matching question. Another worry is that teachers who are attempting at a higher level common assessment may end up creating tests that take a full class period a week. Regardless of what your philosophy, hopefully you agree that teachers spending 20% of their instructional time on formal testing is unethical.
List of Immediate Issues That Must Be Avoided
- The only standardization of a common assessment should be the standard being assessed. How teachers choose to reach that standard is up to them.
- Common Assessments should not take an entire class period each week.
- Common Assessment should not be the simple recall of memorized facts.
- A teacher should not be required to give the exact same type of assessment as their counterpart. For example, one teacher may test for mastery by having students complete an online discussion, while another has students add a layer of analysis to an extensive project that they are doing.
- Common Assessments should not be used to encourage teachers to be like the other teacher. If administration feels like teachers are doing a poor job, then they should take actions to help the teacher improve, or remove them.