Measuring History: Cases of State-Level Testing Across the United States
reviewed by Keith C. Barton - July 11, 2006
Title: Measuring History: Cases of State-Level Testing Across the United States
Author(s): S. G. Grant (Ed.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1593114796, Pages: 338, Year: 2006
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This important collection includes nine empirical studies on the impact of state-level history tests, along with several chapters summarizing research and policy issues in the area. The volume opens with three useful overviewsa description of the origins and current status of state history standards and their accompanying tests, an analysis of research on the impact of high-stakes tests, and a consideration of technical aspects of testing as applied to history. These introductory chapters are followed by eight qualitative case studies, and one quantitative survey, regarding the impact of testing on teachers in Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Virginia, Texas, Florida, and Mississippi. Most focus on teachers perceptions of the role of testing in their professional decision-making. The book ends with two further overviewsa synthesis of the findings presented throughout the book, and speculation on possible scenarios for the future of high-stakes history testing.
By now most educators are familiar with arguments for and against high-stakes testing. Both sides are eager to cite research suggesting that either the accountability of testing leads to improvements approaching the miraculous, or that test pressures result in teacher-centered instruction and a narrowing of content. For over a decade, though, Grants research has shown that although testing does influence teachers, the relationship between state-level testing and classroom practice is far from simple or direct. The studies reported here further caution us against making simplistic generalizationspositive or negativeabout the impact of high-stakes tests on the process of teaching and learning. These studies consistently demonstrate that a variety of factors interact to influence teachers practices.
One of the most obvious mediating factorsand yet one that is often overlookedis the nature of the tests themselves. Many scholars generalize from their own states tests to all state-level tests. As these case studies make clear, however, tests differ dramatically in their content: In some states, students answer multiple-choice questions on a litany of factual information, but in others they are asked to construct historical arguments, analyze primary sources, or answer comprehension questions on readings unrelated to curricular content (or some combination of these). Preparing students for such fundamentally different tasks requires very different strategies, as the chapters in this volume illustrate.
A second mediating factor is the specific nature of the pressures that teachers facethe stakes of high-stakes testingbecause this too varies dramatically from one state to the next. Some state tests have high stakes for individual studentsthey may not graduate without a passing scorebut in other places there are no consequences for students. The stakes there may be for schools or districts (which can lose funding or be taken over by the state), or for teachers (who may receive monetary rewards for their students high scores). And in some states, or at some grade levels, results on history exams have no direct consequences. The pressures that result from these differing contexts are critical in teachers decision-making; teachers may be more likely to emphasize test preparation if students graduation rates depend on it. In contrast, teachers might take a more lasseiz-faire approach if the only sanction is the distant threat of state intervention in their district.
Finally, a variety of individual and local contextual factors influence teachers reaction to state-level testing programs. Some teachers work in cohesive departmental settings in which colleagues meet to work out thoughtful, collective responses to tests, while others must address such challenges on their own. In addition, many of the teachers in this collection clearly have extensive backgrounds in history and have their own ideas about educational priorities in the subject, but other teachersparticularly at the elementary levelmay have little preparation in history and little experience teaching the subject. Notably, teachers prior experiences (or lack thereof) are a critical element in any analysis of the effect of testing, because as the origins of state-level tests recede into the past, more teachers will see these as simply another element of their job, as some in this collection do already. Many teachers today have never taught in a context that did not include state tests, and thus discussions of changes in their practice are rapidly becoming dated.
Given the variety of mediating variables, is it possible to develop any generalizations about the effect of state-level history tests? In his concluding chapter, Grant argues that tests have little consistent impact on either teachers instructional practices or their assessment strategies. The principal influence of state tests, he argues, is on the content that teachers choose to emphasize: They are likely to include topics they feel confident will appear on the tests, although here too, tests are simply one factor among many. But if tests are such a weak influence on teachers practice, why do they inspire so much discussion and such passionate responses (mainly, but not exclusively, negative) on the part of teachers?
In his chapter on Michigan teachers, Avner Segall argues that the chief impact of tests lies not in their influence on classroom practice (which seemed minimal, despite teachers assertions) but rather in how they change the teachers impression of themselves. The tests, he argues, have led to lower levels of commitment and a decreased sense of professionalism. Yet an underlying theme of most chapters in this volume is that teachers continue to make decisions based on their educational priorities; despite complaints about the tests, there is little evidence that instructional decisions have been taken out of their hands (although that certainly may be the case in settings other than those examined here).
Perhaps state history tests have had their greatest influence at an even more abstract levelnot on practice, not on professionalism, but on the way teachers talk about their professional practice. In most of the studies reported here, teachers discussions of state tests reveal their own priorities, and thus complaints about tests (and occasionally, praise) become a way of asserting their ideas about the proper nature of history education. In making such assertions, it should be pointed out, teachers do not always cast themselves in the best light. Although some note that tests do not measure the complicated and abstract historical understandings they believe to be at the core of the subject, others complain because their states tests require critical thinking (p. 237), cover recent history (pp. 115, 186), include content covered in previous grade levels (p. 184), or do not include enough basic factual information (pp. 118-119).
This can hardly be surprising because there is no evidence that history classrooms were exciting venues for thoughtful discussion of enduring historical themes even before the advent of state tests. History classrooms have traditionally emphasized brief retention of isolated factual information about the distant past, although some teachers have always broken with this tradition. The teachers in these studies demonstrate the same range of ideas that one might have found 10 or even 100 years ago, and thus this collection will offer little comfort for those who seek confirmation of either the pernicious influence of testing or its benefits. What this volume does, instead, is complicate our understanding of the teaching-testing relationship through its description and analysis of teachers discussion of this topic in a variety of contexts. In an area too often plagued by overgeneralizations, this is an important accomplishment.