Designing Better Assessments

Originally posted on May 5, 2011 by Shennan Hutton

Take a little quiz and see how you do:

1. Hammurabi’s Code of ancient Mesopotamian society was important because it
A. listed the laws and the corresponding punishments.
B. explained how government officials were chosen.
C. established a single currency for use across the empire.
D. described how to perform formal religious ceremonies. 

2. Ancient Greeks used myths about their gods primarily to
A. strike fear in their enemies.
B. explain events in the natural world.
C. justify their type of government.
D. undermine the Persian religion.

3. The origins of checks and balances in the U.S. political system can be traced to the
A. French monarchy.
B. Roman Republic.
C. Greek aristocracy.
D. Aztec Empire.

4. How did the location of cities in the West African empires of Ghana and Mali influence their growth?
A. Their location in river valleys allowed for extensive farming.
B. Their coastal location made the cities major ports for maritime trade.
C. Their location on major trade routes allowed them to prosper economically.
D. Their mountainous location made the cities easily defensible. 

5. Which characteristic did Aztec and Incan societies share?
A. laws that made slavery illegal
B. families dominated by women
C. government by direct democracy
D. complex religious ceremonies

6. Which of these groups most likely supported the political ideas and policies of Alexander Hamilton?
A. small farmers
B. tobacco planters
C. business owners
D. frontier settlers

Now look at the key at the bottom of this blog to see how many questions you answered correctly. If you answered 4 out of 6 correctly, you are proficient in 8th grade U.S. History. If you answered 3 out of 6, you match the mean score for California 8th-graders in 2010 on the California Standards Test in History-Social Science. Don’t feel badly if you had to guess. My guess is that many 13-year-olds probably guessed as well.

These questions test content knowledge from the History-Social Science Content Standards for grades 6, 7 and 8. This is the first history CST California students take (the others are in grade 10 and 11.) It seems that the test writers made genuine efforts to use clear and simple language, in order to make the test fair and equitable. However, all of these questions require students to recall information, rather than to think, analyze, or otherwise demonstrate understanding.

Essays and performance-based assessments reveal much more information about student learning, but grading those types of assessments has always been too expensive for schools, districts, and the state to afford. Multiple choice is the assessment of choice in the real world.

It’s easy to complain, and much harder to compose a better test that would still be affordable. Nevertheless, that’s what we’re trying to do as part of the History Blueprint project. Here is a preliminary sample composed for 11th-graders:

1. Which of the following events do you think was the most significant factor leading to this photo?

(a) The U.S. and its allies defeats Nazi Germany in World War II.
(b) Cold War tensions develop between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
(c) The Watts riots break out in Los Angeles.
(d) Congress passes the GI Bill of Rights.
(e) The Fourteenth Amendment is ratified by the states.

Explain your choice: ______________________________________________________________________

2. Which of the following events happened AFTER this picture was taken?

(a) Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation.
(b) The Equal Rights Amendment was defeated by a narrow margin.
(c) The Supreme Court issued the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
(d) President Woodrow Wilson signed the Treaty of Versailles. 

3. What is the most likely point of view of the person who took/composed this photograph?

(a) He or she supported the Brown vs. Board of Education decision
(b) He or she desired the reinforcement of Jim Crow legislation
(c) He or she opposed desegregation and the imposition of federal court mandates
(d) He or she supported a conservative agenda on social policy issues

What clues in the photograph support your choice? ___________________________________________________________________________

Let me know what you think about the second set of questions. I’ll write more about assessment later.

For the first set of questions: California Standards Test Released Test Questions, History-Social Science, Grade 8.
Answers: 1. A 2. B 3. B 4. C 5. D 6. C

For the second set: California History-Social Science Project. 1. There is no right answer. C is clearly wrong; D is unlikely. 2. B 3. A