Assessment in the Elementary Grades

Janet Alleman and Jere Brophy

Assessment is an integral part of curriculum and instruction. State-mandated tests are being used to make summative judgments about students, teachers, and schools, but such normative evaluations comprise just one of multiple snapshots that need to be taken to get a full view of student learning. A host of assessment tools is available for classroom use that, viewed collectively, can reflect state and national social studies frameworks and what social studies teachers do and value.


Reasonable Assessments

Many state and national organizations and leading scholars are concerned that high-stakes testing can have a narrowing effect on the curriculum. These individuals and groups, recognizing the need for accountability, have been arguing for social studies assessment that reflects major social studies goals (or standards), a wide range of objectives (often referred to as performance indicators or benchmarks), and more authentic tasks. A 1990 publication by the National Council for the Social Studies calls for systematic and rigorous evaluation of social studies learning that:1

1. is based primarily on the schoo#146;s own stated objectives;

2. assesses not only knowledge of content, but also thinking skills, exploration of values, and social participation;

3. includes data from several sources in addition to paper-and-pencil tests; and

4. is useful not only for assessing student progress, but for teaching content and for planning curriculum improvements.

To evaluate learning in the social studies, teachers must relate their curriculum goals to effective methods of assessing student progress. Three goals lie at the core of powerful social studies teaching: 2

Powerful social studies teaching helps students to develop social understanding and civic efficacy. Social understanding is integrated knowledge of the social aspects of the human condition: how society has evolved over time, the variations that occur in different physical environments and cultural settings, and emerging trends that appear likely to shape the future. Civic efficacy is readiness and willingness to assume citizenship responsibilities. It is rooted in social studies knowledge (such as how a bill becomes a law), skills (such as confident participation in civic affairs), and related values and dispositions (such as concern for the common good).

The NCSS standards and position statements and various states’ standards have played a central role in raising educators’ awareness of the social studies as a rigorous academic area to be covered in the curriculum. However, state tests (usually given at the end of grades 5, 8, and 11) have been the largest force motivating teachers and administrators to revise social studies curriculums to meet those standards. Few would debate the statement that “What gets measured gets done.”

These recent developments have renewed interest in assessment and provided a forum for revisiting our thinking and expanding current practices. While assessment is often viewed as an “add-on” or a necessary evil, we view it as an ongoing, integral part of the curriculum that should cover the four guidelines listed above. One “high-stakes” snapshot is not an adequate sample of student learning. Assessment should be a natural part of teaching and learning; a collection of snapshots that, across time, create a profile of each learner’s social studies


Ongoing Assessments

Assessment should be considered to be ongoing—it can be cast as preliminary (to measure what students already know, to establish “baseline data”), formative (to measure ongoing progress in learning), and summative (to see the cumulative effect of a unit of study on performance). Thus, many instructional activities can also be used as assessment tools. Different forms and times for assessment will be determined by the purpose of the learning situation and the kind of information acquired. Learning activities play two important roles—they are curriculum components that need to be assessed as such and also indicators of student learning. We use the term “activities” to refer to the full range of classroom tasks, activities, and assignments—anything that students are expected to do (beyond reading a text or listening to a lecture) to learn, apply, practice, evaluate, or in any other way to respond to curriculum content.3

Activities may call for speaking (reciting, discussing, debating, or role playing), writing (writing short answers or longer compositions), or other goal-directed action (conducting inquiry, solving problems, or constructing models or displays). They may be done with the whole class or in a small group, with partners or individually. Teachers need to be mindful of the setting when interpreting students’ responses. For example, a teacher should ask him or herself, “Are students in these small groups merely imitating peers, or has the group stimulated each student’s thinking and enabled each one to produce something more sophisticated than would have been produced by the students working individually? Conversely, might an independent assessment activity be difficult for some students because the learning opportunities that led up to it were performed in group settings?”

Activities usually lead to some kind of end result or behavior, if only a verbal response. When used for assessment, behaviors are scored, graded, or at least documented, often with narrative statements. For most students and parents, attaching a score or grade gives the activity (and the goal from which it was derived) more value. Activities are intended as means of enabling students to accomplish curricular goals, and students are expected to engage in them for that purpose. However, activities often serve the dual purposes of instruction and assessment, to the extent that they match major instructional goals. Assessment should be woven throughout the instructional units and formulated around powerful teaching techniques and the content standards. Assessment should begin before the teacher presents new content (to establish baseline data about what students already know) and occur at suitable junctures thereafter to monitor, adjust, revise, and expand what is taught.4


Authentic Assessments

Grant Wiggins, president of the Center on Learning, Assessment, and School Structure has defined authentic assessment as the performance of exemplary tasks that replicate the challenges and standards confronted by writers, business people, and community leaders. Such a task (for an adult) might include making a presentation before a school board or city council, writing a column for a local newspaper, or critiquing a report.5 In the social studies classroom, a task (an instructional activity used in the assessment mode) could be considered authentic if students made a presentation to the student council, wrote a report investigating the need to make a schoo#146;s crossing more safe, or designed a poster to heighten ecological awareness in the community. Such work can be assessed for the quality of the arguments, the use of supportive evidence, and the research done in preparation.

Ongoing instructional activities vary in their level of authenticity and provide partial evidence of student performance and progress. They extend beyond norm-referenced tests in measuring achievement and provide snapshots across time. What students do and how their tasks are accomplished provide additional evidence and represent major aspects of authentic assessment. Students become responsible for creating and constructing their responses.6

Walter Parker, professor of education at the University of Washington, has recommended that authentic assessment tasks:7

1. go to the heart of essential learning by asking for exhibitions of understandings and abilities that matter.

2. resemble interdisciplinary real-life challenges, not schoolish busywork that is artificially fragmented and easy to grade;

3. set standards; they point students toward higher, richer levels of knowing;

4. are worth striving and practicing for;

5. are known to students well in advance;

6. are few in number, but represent the goals addressed;

7. appear to the teacher to be worth the trouble;

8. generally involve a higher-order challenge for which students have to go beyond routine use of previously learned information;

9. are attempted by all students in a class;

10. are incorporated into benchmarks that occur at major academic transitions.

As an example of this last point, fourth grade students, who often explore “people, places, and environments” by studying the history and geography of their state, might write letters to fifth-grade teachers, describing what they learned about their state, how they think their understanding might relate to their upcoming study (in the year to come) of the United States, what they want to learn about the United States, or how they think what they have learned about their state might be useful in their li es. Such an authentic and comprehensive activity would serve as a powerful transition for launching fifth-grade social studies.


Standards-Based Assessments

Teachers often feel burdened by professional position statements and academic standards and view them as inconveniences and distractions from good classroom practice. We would like to encourage social studies educators to consider them as tools for planning and means of raising the visibility of the subject. Policy makers, educators, parents, and citizens of all kinds want to know what students should be taught, how they will be taught, and how student achievement will be evaluated. To help teachers address these questions, NCSS published Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for the Social Studies.8

These standards and performance expectations do not represent a set of mandated outcomes or establish a national curriculum for the social studies. Rather, they are intended as guides and criteria that local planning teams can consult as they seek to integrate state, district, school department, and classroom curriculum plans for social studies instruction, learning, and assessment.

The NCSS performance expectations provide suggestions for learning activities and authentic assessments that frequently can be expanded beyond several lessons and provide learners with experiences that connect knowledge, skills, and values. The best evaluation activities make an impact on students beyond certifying their levels of competence—they promote social understanding and civic efficacy. We support the goal of teaching social studies for life application with an emphasis on responsible citizenship. The NCSS standards (often referred to as the “ten strands”) and accompanying performance expectations blend naturally with authentic assessment. A close examination of these strands reveals that they can apply to formulating positions, creating editorials, promoting causes, engaging in community projects, and so forth.

Table 1 (see pages 14-17) provides samples of authentic assessments for select performance expectations, in alignment with the ten strands. We hope that this information might inspire teachers to design opportunities for higher-order thinking and applica ion in their assessments. Most readers will view the sample assessments in Table 1 as comprehensive, requiring substantial time for planning and enacting. Many of the activities call for participation by other adults (professionals and other community members). These examples are deliberate: We believe that, to really experience authentic assessment and to promote social understanding and civic efficacy, one has to take an active part in it. The social studies classroom is part of, not separate from, the larger community.

The performance expectations identified by NCSS generally are quite meaty. If taken seriously, they cannot be accomplished in single lessons, but instead must be realized through a unit or cluster of units. This is reflected in several of the examples in Table 1 that extend over time. Such activities reflect an emphasis on depth over breadth and align with attributes of authentic assessment as expressed by Wiggins, Parker, and others. They are intended to provide a “flavor” for the nature of authentic assessments and encourage teachers to select and implement one or more examples that align with their curriculum. Additional, less ambitious examples are also included, which may suggest other possible activities that might be incorporated into a lesson when time is available.


Multiple Assessments

The assessment tasks we have provided are examples that go to the heart of essential learning because they ask students to exhibit their understandings and abilities. The tasks usually combine learning activities and assessments with opportunities for teachers to critique both the process and the end result, and they point students toward higher, richer levels of knowing.

Too often, public attention is focused exclusively on summary measures like standardized test scores. There is a lot more to learning than producing a single test score at the end of the year. Multiple assessment tools are available that teachers can use to monitor learning throughout the instructional process, to inform the curriculum and teaching methods, and to actually teach content.9 The net result of reasonable, ongoing, authentic, standards-based, multiple assessment is a comprehensive profile of the student, with standardized test scores being but one of many indicators of what has been learned.


1. National Council for the Social Studies. Social Studies Curriculum Planning Resources. (Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt, 1990).

2. Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman, Powerful Social Studies for Elementary Students. (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1996).

3. Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman, “Activities as Instructional Tools: A Framework for Analysis and Evaluation,” Educational Researcher 20 (1991): 9-23.

4. Janet Alleman and Jere Brophy, “Elementary Social Studies: Instruments, Activities, and Standards,” in G. Phye, ed., Handbook of Classroom Assessment. San Diego, CA: Academic Press (1997), 321-357; “Assessment in a Social Constructivist Classroom,” Social Education 62, no. 1 (1988): 32-34.

5. Grant Wiggins, “Teaching to the Authentic Test,” Educational Leadership 46, (1989a): 41-46; “A True Test: Toward More Authentic and Equitable Assessment,” Phi Delta Kappan 70 (1989b): 203-213.

6. C. Fischer and R. King, Authentic Assessment: A Guide to Implementation (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 1995).

7. Walter Parker, Reviewing the Social Studies Curriculum (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1991).

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

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


Janet Alleman and Jere Brophy are professors in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University in East Lansing.


1 Culture 2 Time, Continuity, and Change 3 People, Places andEnvironments
Early Grades:
Performance Expectations
“Explore and describe similarities and differences in the ways groups, societies, and cultures address similar human needs and concerns.”
“Compare ways in which people from different cultures think about and deal with their physical environment and social conditions.”
“Demonstrate an understanding that different people may describe the same event or situation in diverse ways, citing reasons for the differences in views.” “Interpret, use, and distinguish various representations of the earth such as maps, globes, and photographs.”
Early Grades:
Authentic Assessment
During the unit of study, Families Around the World, students have been interacting with children from diverse places via e-mail. They have gathered information from the Internet, compiling a chart that reflects what they have learned about adaptations that families make based on their culture and the environment in which they live. As a culmination to the study, students invite their families to a presentation showing examples of what they have learned. For example, Inuit family members wear jeans and other modern clothes in the summer; however, during the winter, they wear fur clothes, which are warmer. Many Japanese families do not have automobiles because of the limited parking space, so they depend on trains for local
The class has been studying its community. For the assessment, individual students photograph a local event (such as centennial days or a pow wow) and write a short narrative describing it. These journalistic expressions will illustrate how the same event may be viewed differently by different students. If possible, arrange to have at least some of the narratives published in a local or school newspaper. After studying the local area with emphasis on its geographical features, students plan and present a geography lesson to a group of upper-grade students. Using maps, globes, and photographs, they explain the features of each and show examples illustrating when each is the most appropriate choice for learning about people, places, and environments.
Middle Grades:
Performance Expectations
“Explain and give examples of how language, literature, the arts, architecture, other artifacts, traditions, beliefs, values, and behavior contribute to the development and transmission of culture.” “Demonstrate an understanding that different scholars may describe the same event or situation in different ways, but must provide reasons or evidence for their views.” “Observe and speculate about social and economic effects of environmental changes and crises resulting from phenomena such as floods, storms, and droughts.”
Middle Grades: Authentic Assessment The class has studied the Japanese culture in depth because there has been an influx of families associated with a new Japanese automobile plant in town. Students have gathered a wealth of materials from the Internet, local resource people, travel agencies, etc. As a culmination of the unit, students present their projects to the community as a way to educate their neighbors about Japan. Before the community program, they invite a panel of Japanese people to their class to examine their work and make sure they are presenting a realistic and authentic portrayal of Japanese culture. Students have been studying the Civil War. They have come to realize through examination of multiple sources that a given event or situation may be interpreted and described in different ways. As a part of Black History Week, have the class demonstrate for another class its understanding and appreciation of multiple voices, perspectives, and interpretations. For the session, have teams of students share their research (quotes from a historian oriented toward a Northern perspective, from a textbook oriented toward the South’s interpretation of the war, or from Frederick Douglass’ writing). Finally, hold a follow-up discussion between the two classes. The class has just completed a unit on the physical environment of the local community. After discussing newspaper and television coverage of local environmental changes and crises, students select one change or crisis and write letters to the editor explaining their recommendations for responding to the situation in the spirit of being good citizens in the community.

4 Individual Development and Identity 5 Individuals, Groups, and Institutions 6 Power, Authority, and Governance
Early Grades:
Performance Expectations
“Describe unique features of one’s nuclear and extended families.” “Identify roles as learned behavior patterns in group situations such as,student, family member, peer play group member, or club member.” “Examine the rights and responsibilities of the individual in relation to his or her social group such as family, peer group, and school class.”
Early Grades:
Authentic Assessment
The class has just completed a unit on the physical environment of the local community. After discussing newspaper and television coverage of local environmental changes and crises, students select one change or crisis and write letters to the editor explaining their recommendations for responding to the situation in the spirit of being good citizens in the community.
The class has been emphasizing the importance of building a learning community in the classroom and the value of every individual. Students are asked to identify a new role (for example, Brownie club member) or a modification to an existing role (for example, in a soccer play group that has been unpleasant) and create a simple plan for creating a positive experience for self and others in the group. Keep a reflective journal as a means of self-monitoring. (Volunteer mentors could be very helpful in guiding these individual projects, which could be shared during class meetings.) The entire school has been focusing on building a learning community. Students are asked to develop a school position statement focusing on the rights and responsibilities of students. The class will brainstorm and discuss its views, then submit a statement to the school council for consideration and possible inclusion in the code of conduct.
Middle Grades:
Performance Expectations
“Describe the ways family, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and institutional affiliations contribute to personal identity.” “Identify and describe examples of tensions between belief systems and government policies and laws.” “Examine persistent issues involving the rights, roles, and status of the individual in relation to the general welfare.”
Middle Grades: Authentic Assessment A Sister City project enables students to interact with peers in another country. The goal is for each student to have a global experience that is also personal. Have each student prepare a photo essay that can be captured with digital camera and e-mailed. Elements to be considered: family membership (mother, grandmother, brother and sister), gender (three females and two males in household), nationality (Italian, German), institutional affiliations (Boy Scouts, soccer team and swim team). Current events has been established as an integral part of social studies in this classroom. For this assessment, have students consider school violence, school uniforms, smoking regulations, use of pesticides, or other issues flooding the media, and depict through cartoons a tension that exists between a belief and a government policy. The cartoons will be published in the local newspaper as part of a special section designated as “Challenges We Face in America.” After studying school and local government and what it means to be a responsible citizen, students collectively examine (surveying/ interviewing) issues associated with their rights, roles, and status. They prepare and present to the school board a report on their findings.

7 Production, Distribution, and Consumption 8 Science, Technology, and Society
Early Grades:
Performance Expectations
“Describe the relationship of price to supply and demand.” “Suggest ways to monitor science and technology in order to protect the physical environment, individual rights, and the common good.”
Early Grades:
Authentic Assessment
As a part of a food unit, students have been learning about the relationship of price to supply and demand.. The class decides to plan and conduct a popcorn sale, and in the process learn more about pricing, marketing, and sales. The money that it raises (after paying the bills) will be spent on books for the library. As an assessment, students participate in a discussion and problem-solving activity to determine how much they should charge for a bag of popcorn. Once they have made a preliminary decision, they survey potential patrons to see if they would buy at the established price. The class might decide to adjust the price before conducting the sale. After learning about potential environmental threats that result from science and technology (detergents, styrofoam containers, plastic bags, etc.), students select one local threat to address. The class collectively develops a video illustrating the problem and a plan for solving or improving it, which they present at a parent-teacher organization meeting.
Middle Grades:
Performance Expectations
“Differentiate among various forms of exchange and money.” “Show through specific examples how science and technology have changed people’s perceptions of the social and natural world, such as in their relationship to the land, animal life, family life, and economic needs, wants, and security.”
Middle Grades: Authentic Assessment In studying U.S. history, students have been learning about various forms of exchange and money that have become part of our economic system over time. For example, today very few people barter for goods, but many use personal checks and credit cards, and very many use cash. Students generate a comprehensive list of forms of exchange, explaining the trade-offs associated with each. A local banker or business financial officer can serve as a resource person to critique responses and clarify misconceptions. As part of an integrated unit that addresses the impact of science and technology on society, students discuss and debate changes that their families have experienced that have modified their perceptions of the social and natural world. After thoughtful reading and structured discourse, students individually or in pairs design a new invention that is intended to improve society. They describe the technology and the costs and benefits associated with it. High school students will be invited to judge the elementary students’ projects (drawings and descriptions) based on: feasibility, thoroughness of proposed design, potential impact of the technology to society, and realistic cost/benefit analysis.

9 Global Connections 10 Civic Ideals and Practices
Early Grades:
Performance Expectations
“Explore ways that language, art, music, belief systems, and other cultural elements may facilitate global understanding or lead to misunderstanding.” “Identify examples of rights and responsibilities of citizens.”
Early Grades:
Authentic Assessment
As part of the family living unit, students will examine conceptions and misconceptions of families around the world. For example, students often think all Japanese children eat rice with chopsticks, wear kimonos exclusively, worship Buddha, speak only Japanese. Prior to an exchange of information via e-mail or letters, record students’ ideas about the selected cultural groups. Then explore language, art, music, daily activities, belief systems, etc. At the end of the unit, revisit the initial ideas and discuss what was inaccurate and what new insights have been acquired. During the discussion, students can make a list of preconceived ideas that have been changed as well as new insights. Over a period of two weeks, students prepare photo essays that illustrate and explain rights and responsibilities as experienced in daily life. Examples might include rights to choose what foods the family buys and where it eats, to select what color car to drive, to buy gasoline at whatever station you choose, to buy local newspapers, to decide whether to visit a local museum. Responsibilities might include driving at the speed limit, obeying the street signs, being quiet when visiting the library, etc. The essays will be displayed in local service centers and businesses in an effort to heighten awareness of local citizenship in action.
Middle Grades:
Performance Expectations
“Analyze examples of conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among groups, societies, and nations.” “Examine strategies designed to strengthen the ‘common good’ that consider arange of options for citizen action.”
Middle Grades: Authentic Assessment Students survey businesses in the local community to determine their global connections, then compile and analyze the data. Students prepare a presentation for a local merchants’ association describing the community’s connections to the world, patterns that emerged in the findings, and recommendations for the future, such as what local products might appeal to people in other parts of the world, or what products made in other parts of the world might appeal to local consumers. As part of the study focusing on the local community, students learn about local problems that need attention (such as litter on the street, shoplifting). Ask students to select one local cause, campaign to inform the community of possible solutions, and propose positive action.