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Best Practices in Social Studies Assessment

reviewed by Jing A. Williams - February 05, 2018

coverTitle: Best Practices in Social Studies Assessment
Author(s): Mark Pearcy (Ed.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 168123761X, Pages: 156, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

Under the pressure of high-stakes tests, social studies teachers and teacher educators have been struggling to find meaningful ways to efficiently assess students content knowledge and real-life skills and abilities. Traditional assessments, such as multiple-choice questions in high-stakes tests, tend to make students think there is only one correct answer to each question. They ignore the cultivation of students critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Although alternative assessments, which differ in many ways from the usual type of classroom exams (p. 5), do exist, such assessments are not easy to develop, as they can be time consuming, are not as available as traditional assessments, and many teachers lack the experience of designing such assessments. To tackle this challenge, seventeen teachers and teacher educators provide secondary social studies teachers with concrete examples of alternative assessment in the book Best Practices in Social Studies Assessment, edited by Mark Pearcy.

All the assessments in the book are accompanied by detailed instructions and have demonstrated high-level student engagement in learning. Except for the first and last chapters, each chapter is a collaboration among one teacher educator and one or more classroom teachers. The examples of alternative assessment in this book can be grouped into four categories: performance-based assessment, project-based assessment, text-based assessment, and social-and-technological-based assessment.

Performance-based assessment requires students to demonstrate their learning and understanding by performing an act or a series of acts (Colley, 2008, p. 68). This type of assessment involves teamwork, doing research, giving oral presentations, or debating. In Chapter Two, in order to assess students 21st century skills, Katelynn Dickstein challenges her students to draft proposals to address crises relating to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals in a given country. In Chapter Six, Laura Bond devises a fictional scenario, in which a terrorist group captures an American serviceman and demands that the U.S. withdraw its troops in Afghanistan. Provided with sufficient background information relating to President Obamas foreign policy and border issues in the Middle-East, students are required to advise the Presidents National Security Advisor how to proceed with this case. Chapter Eight presents multiple examples of performance-based assessment. Krista Provost asks her students to research the life of the Framers of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 and their contributions to the Convention, and then students are guided to debate over assigned topics. Kathleen McCort and her students create a European Salon to address the American school violence issues. Similar to McCorts practice, in Chapter Four, Chris Bond sets up an Enlightenment Salon in his Advanced Placement European History class. These assessments give students an opportunity to exercise their problem-solving and critical thinking skills and creatively apply those skills to real-world issues.

Project-based assessment demands a concrete end result. Students are required to use their content knowledge to create an object (physical or virtual), which shows how well they understand their learning. In Chapter Seven, Meredith Riddles assessment is the creation of The Great Depression Museum, and in Chapter Eight, David Allocco guides his students to create a virtual Slavery and Abolition Museum. These assessments inspire[s] students to see the importance of learning (p. 111) and encourage them to take the ownership of their learning (p. 125).

Text-based assessment involves comprehending written work and constructing ones own writing. In Chapter Three, Heather Rippeteaus imperialism argumentative essay sets a great example. Heather emphasizes the importance of the process of learning. She lays out a 14-day teaching plan. She uses three days to teach the historical context, six days for students to analyze historical documents, two days to teach writing strategies, two days for students to outline their essays, and the final two days for students to write their argumentative essays in class. This 3-week teaching plan may not be workable for most teachers, but teachers can select the teaching materials that are included in the book and make them fit into their teaching schedule.

In Chapter Five, Michael Catelli shows us the social and technological sides of an authentic assessment, which relates the task to students real life. In his Sociology class, Michael focuses on school and schooling, and the assessment is called Designing a School. He leads students into this project by having them play a video game first, which requires them to use their mathematic skills to solve puzzles. This game has nothing to do with social studies but challenges students to think creatively. When moving on to the real project, Michael reminds students of the video game, pushing them to rethink schools and telling them not to be afraid of addressing controversial issues in the current educational system. Upon completion, students present their ideal schools to two groups of outside evaluators: the community and the school district officials. Students must also answer any questions raised by the audience. The technological aspect is built into students presentations both in their delivery and in the role students saw for enhanced use of new technologies in teaching and learning (p. 92).

To make the book more appealing to social studies teachers, the editor may consider regrouping the chapters, building a conceptual framework into each chapter, and including rubrics, student work samples, and handouts at the end of each chapter. First, the chapters seem randomly putting together without a theme. If they could be categorized based on the types of the assessments, readers would find what they need much easier. Second, since each chapter of the book involves a teacher educator, building a conceptual framework into each chapter would make more sense. This conceptual framework will connect the project with existing knowledge and will provide a basis for each unique type of assessment. Finally, some chapters include rubrics, student work samples, or handouts, while other chapters do not. Including all teaching materials in each chapter will greatly help teachers visualize what the final projects look like and how teachers should assess student work. Teachers can also build on some of the already-existing materials and make them fit other topics.

In summary, Best Practices in Social Studies Assessment has demonstrated that alternative assessments can push students to go beyond memorization and apply knowledge to meaningful and real-world tasks and often draw conclusions of their own as they actively participate in their learning (p. 128). It is evident that all the teachers in this book are willing to take risks in teaching, provide authentic feedback and scaffolding, give students the freedom to explore and be creative, and develop students real-world skills. This book is a timely publication, which would not only inspire other social studies teachers to design their own alternative assessments, but also shows that alternative assessment is realistically practical in a high-stakes test era.


Colley, K. (2008). Performance-based assessment. The Science Teacher, 75(8), 6872.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 05, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22263, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:36:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Jing Williams
    University of South Dakota
    E-mail Author
    JING A. WILLIAMS is the assistant professor of social studies education at the University of South Dakota. She currently serves as the Vice President and Program Chair of the International Assembly of the National Council for the Social Studies. Her research interests include alternative social studies methods, global education, interdisciplinary studies, and community-based research.
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