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Alternative Assessment: Implications for Social Studies. ERIC Digest.

Nickell, Pat

Alternative forms of evaluating student progress are changing testing or assessment in our schools. From the teacher-made to the standardized test, the familiar over-emphasis on multiple-choice items is giving way to expanded generative formats in which students are called upon to demonstrate mastery through applications in which they use complex processes and webs of knowledge and skill.

Two general issues have come to the fore regarding the evaluation of student achievement in schools: (1) the format of tests; and (2) how test results are used. Accusations regarding the misuse and overuse of tests are certainly disturbing, but there is no guarantee that this issue will be solved simply by changing test types. Whatever the format of the test, if scores continue to be used to classify and track children, the underlying issues remain unresolved. If the numbers of standardized tests administered are maintained at current rates, then our students will continue to be the most thoroughly and frequently tested students in the world, no matter what type of test is administered. However, the remaining issue--that of format and whether continued emphasis on fixed-response testing is valid--is one which reaches directly into the classroom and has clear implications for teachers.

It is widely recognized that alternative assessments are gaining broad acceptance. Large commercial test publishers are beginning to revamp standardized achievement and college entry tests to give greater emphasis to generative- response items as a result of pressure from proponents of alternative assessment. The Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing found that as of 1990, nearly half of all states in the U.S. were considering implementation of some form of performance assessment in state-level testing. However, teachers maintain control over the form and structure of student assessment in the classroom. If students are to succeed on state and national assessments administered in performance-based formats, such formats must be acceptable to teachers and used in classrooms.

The familiar "test"--anything from a ten-item pop-quiz to a standardized achievement test--has, during the twentieth century, come to be dominated by the presumably "objective" format of fixed-response items, most notably multiple- choice. Critics, however, argue quite convincingly that traditional fixed- response testing does not provide a clear or accurate picture of what students can do with their knowledge. Such testing enables students to demonstrate recall, comprehension, or interpretation of knowledge, but not to demonstrate ability to USE knowledge.

Critics also assert that standardized, fixed-response testing may be unfairly misaligned with instruction. Questions may be "missed" simply because of unfamiliar language or format--not because the student has no grasp of the concept. Further, detractors maintain that testing isolated facts in an arbitrary order confuses test takers and ignores the importance of holistic "knowing" and integration of knowledge. While it has been strongly argued that fixed-response tests can assess high levels of thinking, proponents of alternative assessments contend that traditional tests are a central cause for the preponderance of low- level cognitive activities in the classroom. In short, multiple-choice testing-- whether used to measure student achievement at the classroom, state, or national level--is charged with being a non-authentic means of assessing students' mastery of either high-level educational objectives or society's expectations.

According to the National Council for the Social Studies, the goal of social studies education is to promote civic competence. The primary purpose is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world. An outcomes-based approach requires that we test in authentic ways what is considered to be most important in terms of knowledge, skill, values, and attitudes. Thus, if civic competence is highly valued, then students should be able to demonstrate mastery of civic competence through realistic tasks which match the demands and expectations of society.

Fixed-response testing cannot assess students' ability to function as a competent participant in society. We can learn a great deal from such testing about what the students know about history, geography, government, national policy, global conditions, and the like. This knowledge, of course, is a necessary foundation for critical thinking and civic decision-making. However, in terms of how students might go about using knowledge to examine an issue, make a decision, research an idea and synthesize that research in order to make a presentation, initiate a project and see it through, or even evaluate the original idea, we have little to go on. If we really expect students to be able to do these things, then assessment instruments must be designed to provide evidence that such is the case.


The most critical implication of changing assessment types is a curricular one. Grant Wiggins (Nickell 1992) refers to performance assessment as "exhibitions of mastery." What is it, within the area of social studies, that is to be mastered? Can one, in fact, "master" civic competence in the same way that one can master multiplying three-digit numbers or writing poetry in sonnet form? Returning to the goal and purposes set forth by the National Council and reflected in most school systems' goals and missions statements, we are forced to consider the integrative nature of social studies. If our intended outcome is to enable all students to become competent citizens, we must give less emphasis to mere recall and low-level comprehension of facts and concepts, and more emphasis to applying knowledge to tasks that require high-level cognition. Competent citizens make informed decisions; offer reasonable solutions to social and civic problems; and acquire, synthesize, and communicate useful information and ideas.

An assessment designed to match the goal and purposes of social studies will evaluate student mastery of knowledge, cognitive processes, and skills. To enable students to succeed on such an assessment, it is imperative that the traditional social studies curriculum be reexamined and reorganized to insure that mastery of knowledge, cognition processes, and behaviors that characterize civic competence.


A second major implication targets social studies instruction. Students must venture into the real world in order to know it. They must do so in ways that will provide real experiences as active and productive members of the community, structured to allow practice in thinking and acting as a citizen. They must be given opportunities to make decisions which have real consequences; choices that affect the success or failure of an idea. They must experience how problem- solving is enhanced by cooperation, and how planning is enriched by identifying alternative means to achieve an end. "Doing" social studies, like doing mathematics, science, or art is imperative, yet it has been lost to the limitations placed on schools by tight schedules and budgets. The school day should be restructured in order that authentic social studies instruction, involving civic learning in the community, replaces that which relies only on symbols and contrivances. However, the most effective community-based civic learning activities are tightly connected to classroom-based learning of pertinent knowledge and skills.


A third major implication targets the way we treat assessment in social studies. Assessment should no longer be viewed as separate from instruction. Just as the worker is evaluated on an ongoing basis on the products or services generated, student evaluation is most authentic and equitable when it is based upon the ideas, processes, products, and behaviors exhibited during regular instruction. Students should have a clear understanding of what is ahead, what is expected, and how evaluation will occur. Expected outcomes of instruction should be specified and criteria for judging degrees of success clearly outlined. Where a certain level of knowledge about a particular topic is expected of all students, it should be understood in advance. Responsibility for each student's success is initially shared by the teacher and student, but once teachers have fulfilled their part, ultimate accountability rests with the student. Thus, the social studies classroom becomes a microcosm of the real world in which social/civic responsibility and participation is an ongoing process, uninterrupted by "time-outs" for the incongruity of formal testing.

Social studies, often considered to be the most content-oriented of the core curriculum areas, is ripe for reform. The call for alternative assessments only serves to highlight the importance of rethinking current practice in social studies as we recognize once again the close link between the over-arching goal of public education and that of social studies. As the nation moves toward assessments of student achievement which are more closely aligned with what is demanded of us in the real world and which demand student-generated demonstrations of mastery, traditional practices in social studies are called into question. Both curriculum and instruction, often geared toward low-level recall of facts, must be revisited. Test-teach-test modes, in which assessment is treated as separate from instruction, also deserve to be reexamined with regard to how well such practice mirrors how we are evaluated in the real world. Whether or not alternative assessments take hold at state and national levels, the trend has brought us face-to-face with our responsibility as social studies practitioners in schools and classrooms. Traditional practices cannot effectively prepare young people to demonstrate achievement of civic competence.

The following list of resources includes references used to prepare this Digest. The items followed by an ED number are in the ERIC system. They are available in either microfiche and/or paper copies from the ERIC Document Reproduction Service (EDRS). For ordering information, contact EDRS, 7420 Fullerton Road, Suite 110, Springfield, Virginia 22153-2852; telephone numbers are (703) 440-1400 and (800) 443-3742. Entries followed by an EJ number are annotated monthly in CURRENT INDEX TO JOURNALS IN EDUCATION (CIJE), which is available in most libraries. EJ documents are not available through EDRS. However, the journals can be located in the periodical sections of most libraries or the articles can be ordered through Interlibrary Loan by using the bibliographic information provided below.

American Association of School Administrators. TESTING: WHERE WE STAND. Arlington, VA: Author, 1989. ED 314 854.

Archbald, Doug A., and Fred M. Newmann. BEYOND STANDARDIZED TESTING. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1988. ED 301 587.

Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing. MONITORING THE IMPACT OF TESTING AND EVALUATION



Haney, Walter, and George Madaus. "Searching for Alternatives to Standardized Tests: Whys, Whats, and Whithers." PHI DELTA KAPPAN 70 (May 1989):683-687. EJ 388 720.

Kellaghan, Thomas, George F. Madaus, and Peter F. Airasian. THE EFFECTS OF STANDARDIZED TESTING. Hingham, MA: Kluwer-Nijhoff Publishing, 1982.

Maeroff, Gene I. "Assessing Alternative Assessment." PHI DELTA KAPPAN 73 (December 1991):273-281. EJ 435 781.


Nickell, Pat. "Doing the Stuff of Social Studies: A Conversation with Grant Wiggins." SOCIAL EDUCATION 56 (February 1992):91-94. EJ number to be assigned.

Peterson, Kent D. "Effective Schools and Authentic Assessment." THE NEWSLETTER OF THE NATIONAL CENTER FOR EFFECTIVE SCHOOLS 3 (March 1991):14.

Resnick, Lauren B. EDUCATION AND LEARNING TO THINK. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1987. ED 289 832.

Shavelson, Richard J. AUTHENTIC ASSESSMENT: THE RHETORIC AND THE REALITY. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association meeting, April, 1991.

Wiggins, Grant "A True Test: Toward More Authentic and Equitable Assessment." PHI DELTA KAPPAN 70 (May 1989):703-713. EJ 388 723.


This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract no. RI88062009. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or ED.


Dr. Pat Nickell is Director, Instructional Support Services, the Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, Kentucky. She currently serves on the Curriculum Standards Task Force of the National Council for the Social Studies.

Title: Alternative Assessment: Implications for Social Studies. ERIC Digest.
Author: Nickell, Pat
Publication Year: Mar 1993
Document Identifier: ERIC Document Reproduction Service No ED360219
Document Type: Eric Product (071); Project Description (141); Eric Digests (selected) (073)
Target Audience: Teachers and Administrators and Practitioners

Descriptors: Educational Change; Educational Practices; * Educational Testing; Educational Trends; Elementary Secondary Education; * Evaluation Methods; Holistic Evaluation; * Social Studies; * Student Evaluation

Identifiers: *Alternative Assessment; ERIC Digests

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