The Changing Nature
and Purpose of Assessment
in the Social Studies Classroom


Janet Alleman and Jere Brophy

Over the past several years, social studies has become a more visible school subject, and the conception of learning social studies has evolved from doing and knowing to experiencing and making meaning. The tacit and piecemeal curriculum that has long characterized the social studies classroom seems to be gradually giving way to a more coherent and integrated set of objectives, benchmarks, and performance indicators. This approach is goal oriented with an emphasis on learner outcomes: the knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, and dispositions to action that teachers wish to develop in students.

Ideally, curriculum planning and implementation decisions will be guided by these goals, so that each element involved in the process—the basic content, the ways the content is represented and explicated to students, the questions asked, the types of teacher-student and student-student discourse that occur, the activities and assignments, and the methods used to assess progress and grade performance—will be included as a means needed to move students toward accomplishment of the major goals. In this article, we focus on the changing nature of social studies assessment and its importance as a major curriculum component.


A Brief History of Assessment in Social Studies

While assessment is now considered to go far beyond testing, testing has always had a place in social studies teaching, because evaluation is considered an integral part of curriculum and instruction and because students must be graded for report card purposes. There has also been a mindset that if an area of learning is important, it must be tested, although traditionally this has been applied mostly to the basic skills subjects. Until recently, social studies tests were not seen as especially important or controversial.

After summarizing what was then known about evaluation in social studies, Kurfman concluded in 1982 that teacher-made tests predominated over norm-referenced tests and tests that came with curriculum materials; that objective tests were used more commonly than essay tests (especially with low-ability students); and that items concentrated on knowledge and skills, with only slight consideration given to affective outcomes.1 Kurfman also claimed that teachers were not very sophisticated about evaluation, did not engage in it very much, and were not very inventive in their approaches when they did.

One of the most comprehensive sources for locating instruments to evaluate various aspects of K-12 social studies programs is the Social Studies Evaluation Sourcebook.2 Instruments described include general social studies achievement tests, specific knowledge tests in the social science disciplines, and critical thinking skills tests. Instrument analyses are also provided in the areas of student attitudes, interpersonal skills, self-concept, personality, values clarification, moral development, and classroom climate. Other publications that describe social studies tests include the two most recent editions of the Yearbook of Mental Measurement (the 10th edition and the 11th edition and its supplement).3 Among the tests included are the Basic Economics Test, the Dimensions of Self-Concept, and the Children’s Inventory of Self-Esteem.

The 291 evaluation instruments described in these sources are often incorporated into research initiatives but rarely used at the classroom level because they are costly in time, effort, and money. These instruments generally represent narrow segments of the social studies and are most helpful when a particular element of social studies needs attention. Usually, they are not comprehensive enough to reflect the values underlying a schoo#146;s social studies program, and districts are seldom prepared to use the results to make large changes in their social studies curricula.

Social studies has also become part of a number of national testing programs. The National Assessments of Educational Progress (NAEP) monitor the educational progress of America’s students. National results are provided that describe students’ history and geography achievement at Grades 4, 8, and 12.4 The College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB) includes achievement tests dealing with American history and social studies and with European history and world cultures. CEEB also offers a battery of tests that includes social studies.5

Many state testing programs also include a social studies component for high schoolers, especially advanced placement students. This pattern seems to be expanding and is being implemented in earlier grades. Social studies educators have been pushing for inclusion in state initiatives because they fear that if social studies is not substantially represented from the elementary level on, it will lose its place as a core subject. In the Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning, Kurfman in 1991 reaffirmed that testing has begun to receive serious attention from social studies educators.6

A common criticism of social studies tests in the past has been their failure to measure student attainment of major social studies understandings, appreciations, life applications, and higher order thinking. Several scholars have concluded that the prevalent multiple choice format focuses on low-level knowledge objectives.7 This format may be valid for some social studies learnings, but it has obvious limitations. On the other hand, formats such as essay or open-ended testing that require large blocks of time are also questioned, due to the already limited time allocated for social studies instruction.

Other issues center around the effects of testing on achievement and the validity of test scores as evidence of actual accomplishment (which we take to mean acquisition of understanding, appreciation, and the ability to apply powerful social studies ideas). The influence of testing on curriculum and instruction can be positive if teachers and administrators take steps to ensure that test results are valid indicators of what students are learning.

The first step is to see whether a test measures outcomes that the school system values. If it does, the next step is to make sure that the content, skills, and formats represented in the test are aligned with the schoo#146;s social studies curriculum and instruction. If not, measures congruent with what the school values must be sought. If the schoo#146;s goals and values extend beyond what is measured, other assessment tools need to be added in order to provide a more complete profile of social studies learning. We believe that any robust social studies curriculum, beginning in kindergarten, will use a set of measures that extends beyond conventional tests. We address what this range of measures might include later in this article.

Assessment should produce feedback that carries potential implications for adjustments in curriculum and instruction. This will occur if all of the program’s elements—its content, its instructional methods, its activities and assignments, and its assessment measures—are aligned with its goals. This ideal relationship among program components breaks down, however, if the components begin to be treated as ends in themselves, which often happens to assessment components when high-stakes testing practices take hold. Theoretically, it is never a good idea to have assessment measures (rather than goals) driving the curriculum.

Currently, several states are developing curriculum frameworks to guide K-12 social studies instruction and assessment. For example, the Michigan Task Force for Social Studies Education has insisted that statewide testing be based on the curriculum framework (see Bruce Brousseau, “Can Statewide Assessments Help Reform the Social Studies Curriculum?,” in this issue of Social Education, pp. 356-359). It remains to be seen whether the various tests proposed will adequately represent the scope of the curriculum without requiring inordinate testing time. Additional measures will also need to be woven throughout programs to monitor implementation by teachers and achievement by students.

If these challenges can be met, the results derived from such high stakes tests, in combination with other less standardized measures, may serve as valid indicators of progress in social studies. On the other hand, if they fail to align with the goals, if they are narrow in scope, or if they fail to incorporate other measures, there is good reason for concern about high stakes tests distorting the curriculum in undesirable ways.


The Present: A Broader View of Assessment and Evaluation

National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and leading scholars on assessment methods have been arguing for assessment that is well aligned with major social studies goals, more complete in the range of objectives addressed, and more authentic in the kinds of tasks included. It is hoped that such assessments can meet the need for accountability while avoiding the possible narrowing effect on the curriculum that current versions of high-stakes testing might have.

The NCSS Advisory Committee on Testing and Evaluation recommends the following guidelines for assessment:

Several scholars have been arguing for alternative assessment techniques in response to concerns about high stakes testing, accountability pressures, curriculum reforms, the needs of diverse learners, and changes in teaching and learning (e.g., the blending of transmission and constructivism).9 Also, educators have been adopting the premise that assessment is a natural, indispensable part of curriculum development, so that as teaching practices change, alignment requires that assessment practices change as well. For example, two teaching practices that have been emphasized recently are the constructivist approaches of cooperative learning and structured discourse.


Assessing Collaboration in the Group Setting

One challenge for teachers using constructivist approaches is to ensure that students collaborate thoughtfully as they strive to construct new understandings. Newmann identified six key indicators of thoughtfulness that are useful in 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 (showing interest in students’ ideas and their suggestions for solving problems, modeling problem-solving processes rather than just giving answers, and acknowledging the difficulties involved in gaining clear understandings of problematic topics).

6. Students generate original and unconventional ideas in the course of the interaction.10

Thoughtfulness scores based on these indicators distinguish classrooms that feature sustained and thoughtful teacher-student discourse about the content from two types of less desirable classrooms: (1) classrooms that feature lecture, recitation, and seatwork focused on low-level aspects of the content, and (2) classrooms that feature discussion and student participation but do not foster much thoughtfulness because the teachers skip from topic to topic too quickly or accept students’ contributions uncritically.

Teachers can assess other aspects of student discourse using observation tools that focus on variables such as how well the group process is working. For example, the teacher might observe a few students each day and provide feedback on behaviors such as: helps define the issues, sticks to the topic, is an interested and willing listener, considers ideas contrary to one’s own, synthesizes information presented by peers, generalizes when appropriate, and arrives at conclusions that produce new meaning.11 Michaelis and Garcia offer several guidelines for assessment-oriented observation: look for specific behaviors, so that you are not biased by your overall impressions of students (halo effects); look for both positive and negative behaviors; and focus on recording observations as objectively as possible, saving the recording of personal reactions until afterwards.12


Ensuring Individual Accountability

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 gets constructed in a group setting. Research on cooperative learning indicates that student achievement is maximized using models that combine group goals with individual accountability.13 We expect that similar findings will emerge from research on social constructivist teaching methods.

Group projects accompanied by student-led conferences or expert review panels can provide bases for assessing accomplishments that reflect a complete unit or several units. Exhibits of student accomplishments displayed in individual portfolios or other substantive school projects also provide ideal bases for conferencing. The goal is to help students gain insights into the motives, learning processes, and standards surrounding their performances.14 Conferences and review panels serve as vehicles to help students assess their progress and make plans for future initiatives. Graves observed that “Children don’t know what they know. When we speak or when someone elicits information from us, it is as informative to the speaker as it is to the listener.”15 Public presentations such as panels and conferences should raise students’ interest in their own learning, helping them to become more reflective about it and to take more responsibility for it.

Student-led conferences provide opportunities for students to synthesize, articulate, and communicate the large ideas they have come to understand. The content then becomes their own, which makes for more permanent learning. Meanwhile, the teacher or other participant (e.g., peer, high school mentor, parent) has the opportunity to listen, give feedback, and become informed. Parents have the rare opportunity to spend focused time on a school subject that includes some of the context surrounding what their children are learning. As they listen to their children talk about what they are learning in social studies and the connections they are making between it and their own lives, parents can pick up clues about how to support their children’s social studies education. For example, they can become alerted to resources that might be helpful on a particular project (e.g., magazine or newspaper clippings, television documentary, resource persons they know).


Pitfalls and Possibilities of Alternative Assessment

While alternative assessment seems reasonable given the changes in social studies curricula and the increased attention to how students learn best and the diversity among learners, the tools of alternative assessment should be selected to align with social education goals. Even then, some experts continue to voice concerns. For example, most alternative assessments being recommended are untested, so that their reliability, validity, and effects are unknown; also, teachers may design an assessment system that is too narrow.16 Too often, assessment tools become ends in themselves. For example, students merely “do” portfolios, or alternative assessments are mandated as ways to address multiple intelligences and diverse learning styles, without the provision of adequate measures of learning.

While it remains unknown whether state and national standards, high stakes testing, and alternative assessments will actually improve social studies, we believe school districts and individual teachers should use the resources available to develop a comprehensive assessment package that reflects classroom practice and provides multiple snapshots of student work across time. We offer the following set of guiding principles for creating, monitoring, and implementing alternative assessment in the classroom.

1. Assessment is considered an integral part of the curriculum and instruction process.

2. Assessment is viewed as a thread that is woven into the curriculum, beginning before instruction and occurring at junctures throughout in an effort to monitor, assess, revise, and expand what is being taught and learned. A comprehensive assessment plan will represent what is valued instructionally. Local initiatives should draw on state and national standards and any other sources that can enhance local practices.

3. Assessment practices should be goal-oriented, appropriate in level of difficulty, feasible, and cost effective.

4. Assessment should benefit the learner (promote self-reflection and self-regulation) and inform teaching practices.

5. Assessment results should be documented to “track” responses and develop learner profiles.



Currently, teachers are faced with many obligations, responsibilities, and frustrations regarding assessment. The professional literature and conference agendas extol the use of standards, benchmarks, and testing, as well as the potential benefits of alternative assessments with particular attention to the types that are considered “authentic.” While there remain many unresolved issues, we encourage classroom teachers to move responsibly forward by adopting, adapting, and refining assessment practices that have the potential for improving teaching and learning.



1. D. Kurfman, “Evaluation in Social Studies,” in Project Span staff and consultants, eds., Working Projects from Project Span (Boulder, CO: Social Science Education Consortium, 1982), 3-27.

2. D. P. Superka and others, Social Studies Evaluation Sourcebook (Boulder, CO: Social Science Education Consortium, 1978).

3. J. C. Conoley and J. J. Kramer, eds., 10th Yearbook of Mental Measurement (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1994); J. J. Kramer and J. C. Conoley, 11th Yearbook of Mental Measurement (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1994); J. C. Conoley and J. C. Impara, Supplement to the 11th Yearbook of Mental Measurement (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1994).

4. U.S. Office of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, NAEP 1994 Geography: A First Look (Washington, DC: U.S. Office of Education, 1995).

5. College Entrance Examination Board, 1988 Advanced Placement Program National Summary Reports (New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1988).

6. D. Kurfman, “Testing as Context for Social Education,” in J. Shaver, ed., Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 310-20.

7. D. Koretz, “Arriving at Lake Wobegon: Are Standardized Tests Exaggerating Achievement and Distorting Instruction?” American Educator 12: 8-15, 46-52; G.F. Madaus, “The Influence of Testing on the Curriculum,” in L.N. Tanner, ed., Critical Issues in Curriculum. 87th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1988), 83-121; P. W. Airasian, “Measurement Driven Instruction: A Closer Look,” Educational Measurement: Issues and Practices 7 (Winter 1988): 6-11.

8. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1994).

9. 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, WI: Wisconsin Center for Education Research, 1995); G. Wiggins, “Teaching to the Authentic Test,” Educational Leadership 46 (1989a): 41-47; G. Wiggins, “A True Test: Toward More Authentic and Equitable Assessment,” Phi Delta Kappan 70 (1989b): 203-13.

10. Newmann.

11. J. Alleman and J. Brophy, “Elementary Social Studies: Instruments, Activities, and Standards, “ in G. Phye, ed., Handbook of Classroom Assessment (San Diego: Academic Press, 1997), 321-57.

12. J. Michaelis and J. Garcia, Social Studies for Children: A Guide to Basic Instruction (Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1996).

13. R. E. Slavin, “Cooperative Learning and Student Achievement,” Educational Leadership 46, no. 2 (1988): 31-33.

14. S. Paris and L. Ayres, Becoming Reflective Students and Teachers: With Portfolios and Authentic Assessment (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1994).

15. D. Graves, Writing: Teachers and Children at Work (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemman, 1983), 138.

16. R.I. Stiggins, “Revitalizing Classroom Assessment: The Highest Instructional Priority,” Phi Delta Kappan 69 (1988): 363-68.


Jere Brophy is University Distinguished Professor of Teacher Education, and Janet Alleman is a Professor in the Department of Teacher Education, both at Michigan State University. They co-authored the text Powerful Social Studies for Elementary Students.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.