Writing about Immigration: Authentic Assessment for U.S. History Students


Patricia G. Avery, Dana Carmichael-Tanaka, Jennifer Kunze, and Nonie Petersen Kouneski

Like most urban schools, Roosevelt Senior High School in Minneapolis faces many challenges—a high rate of absenteeism, a large number of students living in poverty, and an increasing number of students who take English as a Second Language. The faculty actively seek ways to develop a sense of community among their students, to get more of their students genuinely engaged in learning, and to raise academic expectations.

During the 1990s, Roosevelt was an excellent setting for a unit on immigration. A large number of Somali refugees had recently enrolled in the school, but the already diverse student body was not fully prepared to understand the culture and traditions of the Somali students. The student body was itself ethnically diverse—of the 1665 students in grades 9-12, 12 percent were Asian American, 57 percent Black (not of Hispanic origin) and 25 percent White. Students, however, needed to know more about the realities of immigration and the history of immigration to the United States.

At a social studies departmental meeting in the fall of 1997, one of the authors of this article, Nonie, who teaches at Roosevelt, suggested a joint project on immigration. The project was based on a unit taught by another author, Dana, who was then a teacher at Southwest High School in Minneapolis. A distinctive feature of the unit was an authentic assessment task.

When Dana started teaching the unit, which focused on immigration in the 1900s, students in her U.S. History classes would trace their families’ immigration to the United States, and share their stories with their classmates. The school had a high number of recent immigrants, and many students conducted interviews with family members. In some cases, the students themselves had only been in the United States a few years, and could share their experiences with the class. There were often poignant moments, such as when a Cambodian student told about losing most of her relatives in the war, and the many hardships she endured to come to the United States, or when a Tibetan student talked about his father guarding the Dalai Lama as they crossed the Himalayan mountains to India. When this type of sharing occurred, Dana noticed that many of her U.S.-born students developed a greater understanding and respect for the new residents. And, often for the first time, the students born outside the United States became actively engaged in class discussions.

Dana knew this was a wonderful learning experience for her students, both in terms of the skills and knowledge gained, and for the sense of community it created in her classroom. But when she delved into the work on authentic pedagogy by Fred Newmann and his colleagues (see box), she realized that the unit could be a much more powerful experience.1

Authentic Assessment

Under the direction of Fred Newmann, the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools (CORS) has developed a strong conceptual framework for thinking about the nature of authentic achievement. According to the criteria developed by CORS, the “authenticity” of instruction, assessment tasks, and student performance is reflected in the degree to which:


In the collaborative project described in this article, addressing the following questions helped enhance the authenticity of the immigration assessment task developed by Dana Carmichael-Tanaka:


 Construction of Knowledge

To what degree does the task:


Disciplined Inquiry

To what degree does the task:

Value Beyond the Classroom

To what degree does the task


References: Fred M. Newmann, ed., Student Engagement and Achievement in American Secondary Schools (New York: Teachers College Press, 1992); Fred M. Newmann, Walter G. Secada, and Gary G. Wehlage, A Guide to Authentic Instruction and Assessment: Vision, Standards and Scoring (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Center for Education Research, 1995); Fred M. Newmann and Associates, Authentic Achievement: Restructuring Schools for Intellectual Quality (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996). The questions cited here are taken from Newmann, Secada and Wehlage, pp. 81-85.



Applying the principles of authentic pedagogy, Dana developed an assessment task that built on the framework of the task she already used. She required students to listen to and record important data about the immigration of members of the families of students in the class on a chart, which is shown in Table 1. Students organized the data on the class and analyzed them by describing the trends they saw on the chart (e.g., “Most of the recent immigrants in our class came to the United States because of wars in their home country.”). They then compared the class patterns to patterns described in the textbook used by the class to study the history of immigration. The “push” and “pul#148; factors of migration, as well as the concepts of cultural systems, opportunity and struggle, became the focal points for the task and the unit. The “final product” was an essay in which students described their findings and discussed the significance and implications of their results. The essay was assessed in four areas (forming generalizations, historical interpretation, implications, and style), each of which was described in a rubric given to the students prior to the assessment.

One of the major strengths of the task when Dana first taught the unit was that it required students to connect the concept of immigration to their own lives (Value beyond the Classroom). Dana was fortunate to have recent immigrants in her classes whose stories gave real meaning to the significance of immigration today. Yet she felt that the task she assigned to students needed to encourage more disciplined inquiry. She focused on encouraging students to think about immigration as a social science concept, to conduct their interviews in a systematic fashion, and to develop their writing skills. The revised assessment task was much stronger in terms of helping students to construct their own knowledge and develop disciplinary knowledge and skills.


Using the Assessment Task

Nonie used a version of the immigration unit at Roosevelt Senior High School in the winter of 1996-97 and found, like Dana, that when the students shared their stories, they became more accepting of one another. At a social studies departmental meeting in the fall of 1997, she shared her enthusiasm for the task. The other four U.S. History teachers, inspired by Nonie’s excitement, decided to use it. The five teachers agreed that the task would be part of a month-long unit on immigration in all of their U.S. History classes during February 1998. They hoped that a common experience for all U.S. History students would promote more conversations among students from diverse backgrounds. A great added benefit, they found, was that the task also generated more discussions among the U.S. history teachers about instruction, content, and student learning.

The teachers included one female beginning teacher, one female teacher in her fifth year of teaching, and three males: two in their mid-30s with a moderate amount of teaching experience, and one in his 60s who planned to retire soon after a lifelong commitment to teaching. Their teaching styles ranged from that of the traditional lecturer to the inquiry and issues-oriented teacher, from very teacher-oriented lessons to student-focused lessons.

For some of the teachers who had a more chronological approach to history, the unit on U.S. immigration had previously focused almost exclusively on the beginning of the twentieth century, with passing references to the experiences of current immigrants. The inclusion of the assessment task, however, prompted what one teacher described as a “dance” between the immigrant experience a century ago and today. Who were the immigrants of yesterday and today? Why have some groups assimilated more readily than others? Why have some experienced more discrimination than others? What institutions have helped immigrants make the transition to U.S. society? To address these and other questions, students looked for patterns in population data, read the earlier immigrants’ diaries and letters, and compared their experiences to those of their new immigrant classmates. They listened to guest speakers such as the Tibetan Community Coordinator who welcomes Tibetan immigrants to the Twin Cities. Students read about efforts to limit immigration, such as the bill passed by Congress in 1897 to exclude all prospective immigrants who could not read or write 25 words of the Constitution of the United States in some language, and the 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the forcible repatriation of a group of Haitians. The “dance” between time periods prompted rich conversations among students about what it means to be an American, about what role an immigration policy should play in society, and about whether either of two metaphors for U.S. society—“melting pot” or “salad bow#148;—is appropriate.

Two of the teachers mentioned that the task required significant changes in their teaching and management style—from being teacher-centered to more student-centered. For the more inquiry-oriented teachers, however, the teaching requirements for the task were consistent with their previously established teaching style.2 Despite their differences, the five teachers worked together to provide a common experience for their students. Jennifer, one of the authors of this article, interviewed each teacher after she or he had completed the immigration unit and the assessment task.

Teachers were quite positive about their experience with the task. When the five teachers were asked to rate the likelihood they would use the task again on a scale of 1 (definitely not) to 10 (definitely), the mean response was 8.8. Among the strengths of the task, each teacher described a higher level of student engagement with the task than with traditional assignments. One teacher observed:


I could have told them various patterns of immigration, but I said very little. Instead, students looked for patterns in their own data. All of a sudden kids are saying, ‘Can we look for patterns based on race?’ The questions are all theirs. That doesn’t happen with traditional classroom activities or assessments.


Each teacher also noted that the task required a higher level of thinking than traditional assignments or assessments. One teacher commented:


I think [authentic assessment] is the right direction to go. I really do. [The assessment task] challenged the students and challenged me. It got them to think about how to use the information, and reflect on its significance. The reflection part was really hard for my students, but it was good.


Although two of the teachers thought the task might be too difficult for their students, particularly those students with limited English skills, a third thought that using student data was an excellent way to reach students who tend to experience more difficulty in school.

The teachers felt that the task helped students make connections between course content and the “outside world.” Two teachers describe the way in which these connections affected their students:


One girl said she was noticing a lot of immigrants were coming due to war, so immigration isn’t going to end because there’s ‘bad stuff going on all the time.’ A month ago, I had kids asking ‘Why do we have to care about the rest of the world?’

[The task] does a great job of connecting with kids; they start to get a good sense of the relationship between political history and personal history, and that’s what is most fascinating about the task. They really start to feel connected. That makes history fun!


Finally, three of the teachers noticed an increased sense of community in their classrooms. “I don’t hear comments about ‘those Somalis’ anymore,” said one teacher, because the oral presentations gave the students an opportunity to learn about one another.

The teachers also expressed some concerns about the task. These centered around the amount of time required to complete the task, the omission of content that had previously been part of the course, and the lack of readily available instructional resources. One teacher said, “I’ve had to kind of retool what I was going to do from week to week because I did not want to get away from the general course outline….Sometimes [lessons] got choppy, but that probably happens anytime you do something the first time through.” Rather than decide not to use the task again, however, the teachers talked about ways to adapt the task to accommodate their concerns.

One unexpected consequence of using a common task was the degree to which it increased collegiality among the teachers. Each teacher mentioned this outcome in his/her interview. One teacher, who had been teaching at the school for six years, said, “Not only did we all do an assessment task and not just the traditional curriculum, we all taught the same task. We’ve never had conversations about our curriculum with each other—this sort of ‘jump-started’ our department, and got us talking about what we’re going to do in our classrooms.” All of the teachers indicated that they wanted to continue working together after the project.


Student Perceptions of the Task

A survey of students’ perceptions of the task yielded results consistent with the views of the teachers about the interest and involvement of the students in the unit. Table 2 reports responses to seven items in the survey.3

We were particularly curious as to whether students would view the task similarly to advocates of authentic instruction. Would they see it as challenging? Interesting? Worthwhile? Students responded on a 5-point Likert scale, ranging from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree.

As shown in Table 2, students tended to view the task favorably. A majority of students reported that in comparison to other assignments, the assessment task was more interesting, made them think more, helped them to understand the information better, and caused them to consider a variety of perspectives.



The topic of immigration was particularly relevant to this group of ethnically and culturally diverse students. We do not know if a task based on another topic would have been as successful. Were the students responding favorably to the format of the task or the content? Would a project related to the Civil War, for example, stimulate as much student engagement? It is impossible to tell at this point. What is undeniable is that the use of the criteria for authenticity developed by Newmann and his associates transformed a good learning activity into a powerful and authentic assessment task that can be replicated in schools elsewhere.



1. Development of the assessment task described in this article was funded by the Fund for the Advancement of Social Studies Education (FASSE). The teacher interviews and the student survey were funded by a small grant from the Center for Applied Research in Educational Improvement (CAREI) at the University of Minnesota.

In June 1996, the Minneapolis Public Schools and the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota were awarded a $20,000 grant by FASSE. The goal of the three-year grant, entitled Linking Assessment, Pedagogy and Standards for Powerful Social Studies Teaching (LAPS) was to develop authentic assessment tasks to match the ten National Council for the Social Studies standards themes.

One of the tasks, the “Immigration Task” described here, was designed to match several performance expectations associated with the NCSS theme, Individual Development and Identity. After an initial pilot phase, all five of the U.S. history teachers at a senior high school in Minneapolis decided to use the task in the winter of 1997-98. This article is our “story” about the development of the task; how it came to be used by five teachers with differing teaching styles, levels of experience, and interests; and how students and teachers responded to it.

2. For details about factors that were correlated with high student performance on the task, see Patricia G. Avery, “Authentic Assessment and Instruction,” Social Education 63, no. 6 (October 1999): 368-373. The most important factor associated with student performance was the level of authentic instruction provided by the teacher. The extent of student engagement in the project was another significant variable.

3. Jane Schleisman, a graduate student in the College of Education and Human Development, developed the survey items.


Patricia G. Avery is Associate Professor of Education at the University of Minnesota; Dana Carmichael-Tanaka is a K-12 social studies curriculum specialist, Minneapolis Public Schools; Jennifer Kunze is District Secondary Mentor, Bloomington Public

Schools, Minnesota; and Nonie Petersen Kouneski is a social studies teacher,

Minneapolis Public Schools. Patricia coordinated the research and evaluation component of the project dscribed in this article; Dana wrote the assessment task; Nonie was the lead teacher at Roosevelt who initiated the project; and Jennifer, in her role as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, conducted interviews with the teachers who participated in the project. We are indebted to Fred M. Newmann for his comments on an early version of the assessment task.