Can Statewide Assessments Help Reform the Social Studies Curriculum?


Bruce Brousseau

Systemic educational reform is a process in which success depends on the coordinated interaction of many components. To the degree that these components are not in alignment, reform is less likely to succeed. The Michigan Task Force for Social Studies Education (hereafter Task Force) was well aware of this truism as its efforts began in 1993. At that time, the standards-based reform movement was getting into full swing across the country. The federal Department of Education had presented its plan for improving what students should know and be able to do in various academic disciplines—including those that make up the social studies.

The Task Force committed itself to using what was best about the various national content standards in the social studies to create state content standards that would improve social studies education in Michigan. Realizing that reform would not come easily, the Task Force was determined to make statewide assessment a driving force for positive change in the social studies curriculum.


The Historical Background

In December 1993, Michigan’s governor signed into law Public Act 335, which introduced significant educational reforms to the state. Among the changes was the addition of American government/civics, economics, geography, and history to the state recommended academic core curriculum. The Task Force, in lobbying for this legislation, had fought hard to include provisions for statewide assessment of social studies in the law. To understand why, it is necessary to look at the broader picture of educational reform in Michigan.

Prior to the 1993-94 school year, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) had developed and implemented statewide tests in mathematics, reading, science, and writing. State organizations whose mission was to improve social studies education suspected that a bias toward tested subjects was likely to result in neglect of social studies education in Michigan schools. After all, everyone knows that “what gets tested is what gets taught.” It was feared that if social studies standards were only recommended by the state, local school districts could and would ignore them. It seemed essential to link the content standards to something that was mandated by law in other areas, namely, statewide assessment. This would put teeth into the law and give social studies the level of respect accorded to every other core academic discipline.

The Michigan Curriculum Framework defines social studies as “the integrated study of the social sciences to prepare young people to become responsible citizens” and outlines its purposes and methods as follows: “to develop social understanding and civic efficacy, the social studies curriculum builds four capacities in young people: disciplinary knowledge, thinking skills, commitment to democratic values, and citizen participation. Each capacity contributes uniquely to responsible citizenship.”1 This vision for the social studies curriculum is supported by many social studies professionals in and outside of the state.2

To develop tools for assessment in social studies, the Task Force undertook a long and intensive process in conjunction with the Michigan Department of Education. It was understood that unless the content standards on which assessment was based were credible in the eyes of social studies educators and the general public, the life span of the assessments would be brief indeed, and rightly so.

When asked to explain why statewide assessments would improve social studies education, proponents argued that such tests would force school administrators to make social studies, as defined by the Michigan Curriculum Framework, a central part of every schoo#146;s curriculum. Social studies programs would receive more resources as well as teachers specifically qualified to teach the material. More emphasis would also be placed on teaching in a way that conforms with the latest research and understanding of what works well in classrooms.

The social studies content standards were recommended by the Michigan State Board of Education in July 1995. In February 1996, the Board accepted the Task Force’s plan for statewide assessment of social studies.

How Statewide Testing Can Drive Change

There isn’t much doubt that when school administrators believe their careers will rise or fall in direct correlation with student achievement, the presence of statewide assessments will have an impact on how resources are allocated in schools. From the standpoint of promoting attention to the social studies, the introduction of statewide assessment has already raised awareness levels and caused administrators to rethink how resources are used.

Surveys conducted for the MEAP office indicate that local curriculum review cycles in the social studies are being accelerated due in no small part to the introduction of statewide assessment. More resources are being provided for instructional materials and professional development opportunities. Schools are adjusting their curriculum to provide more time for social studies, while language arts instructors are using more social studies source materials in their classrooms. And, requests for computer time in social studies classes are being given a higher priority than before.

Perhaps the greatest influence the statewide tests are having is in stimulating discussions about social studies between classroom teachers and district curriculum coordinators. These discussions have led to a clearer articulation of the K-12 scope and sequence in social studies, and resulted in a much better understanding of what students should know and be able to do at different grade levels.

The issue of instructional quality is more difficult to measure. Many educators have argued that the types of assessments used must inevitably affect how content is presented in classrooms.3 The supporting documents for the statewide assessments in Michigan make clear that the tests were designed to push beyond the traditional recall items against which “authentic assessment” advocates so often protest.

In designing the state tests, however, compromises were made. For example, three of the 25 state content standards (Conducting Investigations, Group Discussion, and Responsible Personal Conduct) were excluded from consideration for use in the assessments. While there are good explanations for not including items that measure these integrative and cross disciplinary skills, neglecting them undermines the vision of social studies education embodied in the Michigan Curriculum Framework by reducing opportunities for developing critical thinking, group discussion, and citizen participation skills.

In this sense, the Michigan social studies assessments may lead to a narrowing of the intended curriculum. However, given what is represented by the 22 content standards that are assessed, most would argue that the overall social studies curriculum will be expanded as it is brought into full alignment with the assessments.


Challenges in Assessment

The introduction of change in any complex system is bound to create some resistance. It became apparent early on that the adoption of statewide social studies assessments would require significant adjustments on the part of those involved in the process—from individual teachers to administrators to those working at the district and state levels. It was also clear that statewide assessments alone would never lead to improvements in social studies education. Providing classroom materials, professional development support, and other resources would be essential to the success of this reform effort.

One of the first hurdles to overcome was resistance to the idea of assessment itself. Rumors that the effort would be canceled were plentiful during the 1994-95 school year. The state had a history of false starts in this area, and given the potential for controversy, many did not believe that the state tests would ever see the light of day.

Moving beyond this “denia#148; stage, proponents of the assessments began to encounter resistance of a different kind. Some teachers expressed anger at the very notion of being told by legislators and bureaucrats in the state capital that they would have to alter the content of what they were teaching in their classrooms. This anger was compounded by the idea that statewide tests would be used to ensure that changes were made.

Michigan Department of Education staff and Task Force members invested thousands of hours in workshops and at conferences to promote the positive aspects of the new social studies assessments. These efforts led to a gradual change in how the tests were viewed. Most educators came to accept the assessments as, at worst, a necessary evil. In the absence of any substantive objections to the tests themselves, teachers began to ask, “If our students are going to be tested, what do we need to know to help them pass?”


Supporting Teachers During a Change Process

Many elementary teachers in Michigan had little or no formal training in any of the social studies disciplines to be covered by the new statewide tests. This was understood by the Task Force, which proposed reforms in teacher preparation to support the new content standards and assessments. The solution here was obvious, if not easy to implement. Some of the less obvious barriers to success are those created by characteristics engrained in the culture of teaching.4 Perhaps because many teachers are accustomed to working in isolation from each other, they tend not to share ideas with their colleagues freely. Yet, this is exactly the kind of behavior that is required for educational reform to succeed.

The new content standards require schools and teachers to take a longer view of the educational process and their part in it. This means teachers need to work together more on the articulation of the K-12 social studies curriculum. This may be difficult if the message conveyed to teachers, by administrators, is that they alone are responsible for their students’ test scores. This message might also be interpreted as letting teachers in all non-tested grades off the hook.

Many educators have come to see that, given the demands of the new content standards, “doing your own thing” in the classroom is no longer an option at any grade level. Teachers need to work together not only to help their students master the content of the statewide standards; instructional methods may also need modification. The new statewide assessments also demand that students demonstrate their ability to think in a different way from what is called for on more traditional statewide assessments.


HOT Questions Require New Skills

It was clear from the outset that the new statewide social studies assessments would break from tradition in important ways. The Task Force wanted to create tests that would require students to go beyond memorizing facts to engage them in Higher Order Thinking (HOT).5 To accomplish this, they created selected-response clusters in the form of specific prompts followed by five related multiple choice items.

Figure 1, “The Grasshopper and the Ants,” (p. 357) shows one such selected-response cluster developed for testing knowledge of economics. In order for students to select the correct answer on the multiple choice items given, they must combine what they already know about economics with the information provided in the prompt. This forces students to apply what they have learned to a specific situation rather than just recalling isolated facts or definitions.

The statewide assessments also ask students to interpret social studies data, to identify and explain important social studies concepts, and to make connections between these concepts and the position they might take on a contemporary public policy issue. The assessments require students to express more of their knowledge in writing than is typically expected on such tests. Helping teachers to make students aware of these different expectations continues to be a major challenge.


In Conclusion

Assessments have become a common tool for those seeking to improve the quality of social studies education at the state level. Most reformers know, however, that a much broader infrastructure is needed to support genuine change in teaching and learning. Generally speaking, statewide assessments can monitor the curriculum used in schools and provide valid judgments about the alignment of the local curriculum with state content standards. To ask for more than this from one tool may not be realistic.

The formula for improving social studies education includes high quality assessments at both the local and state levels. Teachers must not only be thoroughly prepared as to what to teach and how to teach it, but be willing to share what they learn as they go through the reform process. Administrators must have the ability to empower their staffs to address change as learning teams rather than as individuals working in isolation.

Finally, the state’s responsibility in this reform effort is to help identify and provide the high quality resources needed to support teaching to the content standards. This requires improved communications with existing professional organizations and making use of new technologies including the Internet.

Everyone involved in the reform process must be vigilant against the potential for any one component of change to corrupt the others. Dropping the 800 pound gorilla of statewide assessment into the mix can have a negative influence, but this does not have to be the case. If a proper balance is reached between teacher preparation in the content areas and the use of results from statewide assessments, the positive aspects of each component can emerge. No one ever said that reform of the social studies would come easily. Nothing worthwhile ever does.



1. Michigan Curriculum Framework, Section II: Content Standards & Draft Benchmarks, (Lansing, MI: Michigan Department of Education, 1996), 22. (

2. In the fall of 1994, the Michigan Department of Education conducted a series of public hearings to seek feedback from educators, parents, and other community members. Of the more than 1400 comments addressing the social studies content standards, the vast majority supported the basic vision for social studies education in the state. See also Walter Parker and John Jarolimek, Citizenship and the Critical Role of the Social Studies, NCSS Bulletin 72 (1984).

3. See, for example, G. P. Wiggins, Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance (Princeton, NJ: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998).

4. See John I. Goodlad, A Place Called School: Prospects for the Future (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984).

5. For an explanation of the concept of Higher Order Thinking used here, see Fred Newmann, Walter Secada, and Gary Wehlage, A Guide to Authentic Instruction and Assessment: Vision, Standards and Scoring (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, 1995).


Bruce Brousseau is social studies assessment consultant for the Michigan Department of Education. He is reponsible for the development and implementation of Michigan’s statewide assessment of social studies. Assessments were introduced at grades 5, 8, and 11 during the 1998-99 school year.

Figure 1. The Grasshopper and the Ants 

Read the fable below. Then use your knowledge of economics to answer the questions about the fable.


The grasshopper played his fiddle and sang as he watched the ants pulling a grain of corn to their storehouse. “Come and play,” sang the grasshopper. “It’s summer.”

“We can’t play,” replied the ants. “Winter will be here soon.”

The busy little ants did not have time to play in the summer sun. From morning until night, they hauled grain to their storehouse. But the grasshopper laughed and played his fiddle through the summer and fall.

Then the cold winter winds began to blow. The ants ran into their house and closed the door. One day, it snowed. The grasshopper was cold and hungry. He had nothing to eat. He had nowhere to go. All he had was his fiddle.

As the grasshopper stumbled along in the cold, he came to the ants’ door. He could hear them laughing and singing inside their snug home. Shivering, he knocked on the door.


1. How is scarcity demonstrated in this story?

a. There is only one grasshopper.

b. The time and good weather to gather food are limited.

c. The ants could not produce enough food for the grasshopper.

d. Grasshoppers are bigger than ants.


2. What was the opportunity cost of the grasshopper’s choice?

a. He gave up the chance to gather food for the winter.

b. He was able to spend the summer fiddling.

c. He was able to enjoy the good weather during the summer.

d. The ants gave up the chance to play.


3. If the ants used a cart to carry the food to their storehouse, what would they be using?

a. A natural resource.

b. Human capital.

c. Capital equipment.

d. A service.


4. Imagine the next chapter in this story. In which of the following cases would the ants be consuming a service?

a. The grasshopper trades his fiddle for grain and a warm bed.

b. The ants feel sorry for the grasshopper and give him grain and a warm bed.

c. The grasshopper plays music on his fiddle in exchange for grain and a warm bed.

d. The grasshopper promises to pay the ants next summer for grain and a warm bed during the winter.


5. Imagine that the ants decide to trade some of their grain to the grasshopper. They must decide how much to ask

the grasshopper to give in exchange for the grain. Which would be the most important economic factor in

making the decision?

a. How much they liked the grasshopper.

b. The natural resources used to produce the grain.

c. Weather conditions at the time of the trade.

d. The supply of grain available.

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