Social Education
Volume 62 Number 1
January 1998

Assessment in a Social Contructivist Classroom

Janet Alleman and Jere Brophy

Recognizing the need for accountability, but concerned about the narrowing effect on the curriculum that current versions of high-stakes testing might have, National Council for the Social Studies and leading scholars have been arguing for social studies assessment that reflects major social studies goals, a wide range of objectives, and more authentic tasks. NCSS guidelines call for systematic and rigorous evaluation of social studies instruction that
1. Bases the criteria for effectiveness primarily on the schoo#146;s own stated objectives;
2. Includes assessment of progress not only in knowledge, but in thinking skills, valuing, and social participation;
3. Includes data from many sources in addition to paper-and-pencil tests; and
4. Is useful not only for assessing student progress but in planning curriculum improvements.1

Comprehensive Social Studies Assessment
To evaluate learning in the social studies, teachers must relate their curriculum goals to effective methods of assessing student progress. Three curriculum goals—understanding, appreciation, and life application—lie at the core of constructivism as a social studies methodology.
Understanding means that students grasp both the individual elements in a network of related content and the connections among them, so that they can explain the content in their own words. Appreciation means that students value the content because they recognize that there are many good reasons for learning it. Life application means that students retain their learning in a form useable in other contexts. To address this range of goals, assessment must be what scholars refer to as authentic.2

Traditionally, assessment has been tailored primarily for the individual student and designed to elicit reflections of transmitted information. The kind of assessment implied by constructivism flows from the belief that students develop new knowledge and make it their own through an active process of “meaning making.” While constructivists may differ in their philosophical beliefs regarding the nature of knowledge, all favor moving from transmission models of teaching toward models that involve crafting reflective discussions scaffolded around networks of powerful ideas.
Social constructivists emphasize that the teaching-learning process works best in social settings in which individuals engage in discourse about a topic. Participants advance their own thinking through exposure to the views and insights of others. Communicating their own beliefs and understandings forces them to articulate their ideas more clearly, which sharpens their conceptions and frequently helps them make new connections.

Challenges in Planning Constructivist Assessment
One challenge for teachers using the social constructivist model is to ensure that students collaborate thoughtfully as they strive to construct new understandings. Newmann identified six key indicators of thoughtfulness observed in high school classes that are useful to the assessment of discourse at all levels:
1. Classroom discourse focuses on sustained examination of a few topics rather than superficial coverage of many.
2. The discourse is characterized by substantive coherence and continuity.
3. Students are given sufficient time to think before being required to answer questions,
4. The teacher presses students to clarify or justify their assertions, rather than accepting and reinforcing them indiscriminately.
5. The teacher models the characteristics of a thoughtful person by, for example, showing interest in students’ ideas and suggestions for solving problems, modeling problem-solving processes rather than just giving answers, and acknowledging the difficulties involved in gaining clear understandings of problematical topics.
6. Students generate original and unconventional ideas in the course of their interaction.3
Good constructivist teaching should yield high scores on thoughtfulness indicators as compared with (a) transmission approaches that emphasize lecture, recitation, and seatwork, and (b) less desirable forms of constructivist teaching that feature participatory discussion but lack intellectual discipline; for example, the teacher leaps from topic to topic or accepts all student contributions—even irrelevant comments, ill-informed opinions, and outright misconceptions.
Teachers can assess other aspects of student discourse stimulated by the constructivist approach. Observation tools that focus on variables within discussions can help both students and the teacher to get a “reading” on how well the group process is working.
A second challenge for teachers using social constructivist methods is how to measure individual effort as each student builds his or her own unique representation of what was constructed in a group setting. Research on cooperative learning indicates that student achievement is maximized using models that combine group goals with individual accountability.4 We expect that similar findings will emerge from research on social constructivist teaching methods.
Table 1 provides a framework for teachers to measure the contributions of individual students to group discussion. Table 2 suggests how students working in a group can themselves measure the quality of their discourse, while Table 3 calls for individual students to assess their own role in group discussion.

Forms of Constructivist Assessment
Constructivism implies that learning is ongoing and continuous. Assessment should reflect this model, with preliminary, formative, and summative assessments viewed as being of equal importance in students’ profiles. The read- recite-test model, on the other hand, leads to heavy emphasis on summative assessment only.
The planning of assessment experiences that flow throughout the learning process affords teachers the chance to use learning activities themselves as assessment tools. All “good” learning activities enable students to accomplish curricular goals,5 and usually lead to some kind of product that may be used for assessment. For most students and parents, attaching a grade to a learning activity gives it more value. But authentic assessment also means that teachers observe how students construct knowledge and how they apply their new understandings in other contexts.
Wiggins identified authentic assessment with the performance of exemplary tasks that replicate the standards and challenges of adult life.6 For example, students might address the school board with regard to the student dress code, or the city council with regard to the safety of the schoo#146;s street crossings.
Authentic assessment would involve examining the quality of their arguments and the supporting evidence for any change they propose. On the other hand, a paper describing how a group of concerned citizens might go about trying to change a city regulation would be viewed as non-authentic—a hypothetical exercise with no actual “reality tests” or consequences.
The best assessment activities make an impact on students beyond certifying their levels of competence. For example, a curriculum goal might call for students to develop a position on a current social issue that is grounded in knowledge, reflects diverse opinions, and includes research gathered from a range of sources. Here, writing an editorial for the local newspaper would be more authentic than writing only to illustrate that the students can research and write coherent papers.
Authentic assessment replaces the related ideas that evaluation can only be accomplished (1) through objective tests, (2) conducted after the teacher’s instruction is completed, (3) in a single sitting, (4) with a distribution of grades that should yield a bell-shaped curve.
Walter Parker has provided a list of attributes useful in planning authentic assessments.7 He also recommends that authentic assessment be incorporated into benchmarks that occur at major academic transitions. For example,
students about to enter middle school might write a letter to their sixth-grade social studies teacher describing what they have learned about U.S. history and geography in the fifth grade. They could say how they expect knowledge of their own country to connect with their upcoming study of Mexico and Canada, and how learning about other countries is likely to affect their roles as global citizens.
Another excellent technique for authentic assessment is the student portfolio. As “snapshots in time,” the contents of a portfolio reveal patterns in the learner’s profile. Portfolios are authentic if they illustrate a student’s actual accomplishments (for example, an individual or class-generated letter to a newspaper promoting ecological awareness week with well-supported arguments about its importance).

The most authentic assessment practices are integral parts of the curriculum and instruction process. In constructivist social studies classrooms, the teacher emphasizes discourse as the primary teaching-learning modality. Responsible teachers monitor this discussion as a process, and use assessment methods that ensure individual accountability for accomplishing learning goals. Based on constructivist premises, authentic assessment is a natural way to represent what is valued, and it fits well with the view of all human learning as ongoing and comprehensive.


1. National Council for the Social Studies, Social Studies Curriculum Planning Resources (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1990).
2. F. Newmann, “Higher Order Thinking in Teaching Social Studies: A Rationale for the Assessment of Classroom Thoughtfulness,” Journal of Curriculum Studies 22 (1990): 41-56; F. Newmann, W. Secada, and G. Wehlage, A Guide to Authentic Instruction and Assessment: Vision, Standards, and Scoring (Madison: Wisconsin Center for Education Research, 1995); G. Wiggins, “A True Test: Toward More Authentic and Equitable Assessment,” Phi Delta Kappan 70 (1989): 203-213, and “Teaching to the Authentic Test,” Educational Leadership 46 (1989): 41-47.
3. Newmann.
4. R. Slavin, “Cooperative Learning and Student Achievement,” Educational Leadership 46, No. 2 (1988): 31-33.
5. J. Brophy and J. Alleman, “Activities as Instructional Tools: A Framework for Analysis and Evaluation,” Educational Researcher 20, No. 4 (1991): 9-23.
6. Wiggins, “A True Test” and “Teaching to the Authentic Test.”
7. Walter Parker, Reviewing the Social Studies Curriculum (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1991).

Janet Alleman is professor of teacher education and educational administration at Michigan State University. Jere Brophy is distinguished professor of teacher education at Michigan State University.

Table 1
Teacher’s Evaluation of Individual Contributions to Discussion

Select a few students each day for observation and feedback.

Student Behaviors Student Name: _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________

Helps define the issues _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________

Sticks to the topic _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________

Is an interested and willing listener _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________

Considers ideas contrary to own _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________

Synthesizes information presented by peers _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________

Generalizes when appropriate _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________

Arrives at conclusions that produce new meaning _____________ _____________ _____ _____________

Table 2
Group Evaluation of Discussion

Always Usually Sometimes Never

1. We checked to make sure everyone understood
what to do. _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________

2. We responded to questions, giving explanations
where needed. _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________

3. We clarified what we did not understand. _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________

4. We helped one another and made sure we
all understood and could apply what we learned. _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________

Signatures of Group Members: ___________________________ ___________________________

___________________________ ___________________________

Table 3
Individua#146;s Self-Assessment of Contributions to Discussion

How well do I work with my peers? Always Usually Sometimes Never

I cooperate with others as we work toward
our group’s goals. _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________

I keep on task. _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________

I contribute new ideas. _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________

I make constructive suggestions when asked
for help. _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________

I give others encouragement. _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.