Young Whan Choi

Young Whan Choi

There is an adage in education that what you test guides what you teach.  Those who care about democracy may soon have reason to celebrate, as the California Legislature is currently weighing a recommendation from the California Department of Education to implement a test to measure students’ knowledge of civics. The thinking goes that if we test for civics then we are more likely to have schools pay attention to how prepared students are for democracy. There is, however, a corollary truth in education, which is that how you test guides how you teach. This is where the current recommendation before the Legislature is troubling.

The proposal to test high school students in civics is part of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s broader effort to revise the assessment system for the state of California (full proposal can be found here). With respect to civics, the recommendation includes implementing an online assessment that “uses selected response items that can be rapidly scored” – in essence, a multiple-choice test. While the purpose of such a test would be to gather data on the extent to which civics is covered in high school classrooms, it may unintentionally push civics instruction in the direction of rote memorization. If we truly want to prepare students for democracy, we need deeper, more meaningful assessments designed by teachers at the local level that require students to engage directly in the democratic process.

Elizabeth Humphries

Elizabeth Humphries

The Legislature need not look far into history for lessons on how multiple-choice testing has narrowed the curriculum – pushing out arts, physical education and civics, for example – and encouraged teachers to focus on more rote forms of instruction. We have just emerged from such an era defined by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and it would be misguided, to say the least, to continue in this direction.

Success in the 21st century is increasingly defined by students’ ability to handle complex and creative tasks in an information-saturated environment. As the Partnership for 21st Century Learning points out, students need opportunities to develop critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. These skills should also be of central concern to those who care about nurturing people who can ensure that the United States lives up to its democratic ideals.

The California Department of Education released some of its previous U.S. History exam questions, such as the following: “The Declaration of Independence elaborates on the Enlightenment idea of A) natural rights, B) collective ownership, C) religious freedom, or D) political equality.” While students should study the political thought underpinning the Declaration of Independence, using a multiple-choice test to assess their learning incentivizes students and teachers to focus on memorizing tidbits of information. Instead, assessments should expect students to apply their knowledge and should yield artifacts that can be used by educators to improve their instruction.

These kinds of assessments already exist and are being used in many schools and districts throughout California, including in Oakland Unified School District. Such assessments could serve as a model for whatever the state eventually implements.

In 2001, history teachers in Oakland developed learning standards based on the ways that historians think. Oakland Unified History Specialist Jeannie Kohl describes these standards as “de-emphasizing the memorization of facts and dates, and instead prioritizing higher-order skills such as chronological thinking, examining and interpreting evidence, and incorporating multiple perspectives.” Because multiple-choice questions are a poor measure of higher-order thinking, Oakland followed the Advanced Placement Exam approach, which requires students to examine multiple historical sources and use them as evidence in an argumentative essay responding to a prompt.  Tenth and 11th grade history teachers in Oakland voted to adopt the rigorous Advanced Placement form of assessment in 2004, and since then, it has expanded to grades 6-12.

One of last year’s 12th grade assessments asked, “Should the State of California adopt a minimum wage of $12.25/hour?” These are the kinds of engaging questions that when asked could provide students with opportunities for civic engagement. Students at Fremont High School conducted interviews of people who had lived on minimum wage and used the transcripts of these interviews as evidence for their essay. At Coliseum College Preparatory Academy, students surveyed more than 500 community members to understand the impact of Oakland’s raise in minimum wage on their livelihoods. Rather than learning multiple-choice test-taking strategies, students need more opportunities to engage with the community around these types of relevant and meaningful questions.

The Legislature has a critical choice to make. Assessments shape the kind of instruction that happens in classrooms. A history teacher in Oakland told us, “If we want students to be successful on the [test], then we have to be intentional with the instructional choices that we make throughout the school year. Students need multiple opportunities to practice the kind of thinking and writing that the assessment demands.” By choosing a meaningful assessment of critical thinking, history teachers in Oakland are moving away from lectures that work well with multiple-choice tests and toward instruction that favors students discussing primary texts, researching in the community, and developing their own arguments.

As lawmakers decide how California schools will assess civics, they should answer this one question: “To prepare youth for democracy, do our students need A) more opportunities to actively and critically analyze issues or B) more time memorizing names and dates?” This is one multiple-choice question that we hope our lawmakers answer correctly.

•••

Young Whan Choi is Civic Engagement Coordinator for the Oakland Unified School District and a member of the California Performance Assessment Collaborative. Elizabeth Humphries is a history educator and is the High School History Specialist for the district.  

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  1. Peter Paccone 12 months ago12 months ago

    Here's what I would like to see At the end of every year, I'd like the state of CA to provide students enrolled in the World History and US History classes with a chance to take some kind of multiple choice and free response test (modeled after the old Golden State exam but with that test to be scored by the teachers, rather than the state, and only required if the teacher so wishes.) I'd then like … Read More

    Here’s what I would like to see

    At the end of every year, I’d like the state of CA to provide students enrolled in the World History and US History classes with a chance to take some kind of multiple choice and free response test (modeled after the old Golden State exam but with that test to be scored by the teachers, rather than the state, and only required if the teacher so wishes.)

    I’d then like to see teachers encouraged, but not required, to self report the scores to the state . . . with the scores to be made public on the internet.

    Then I’d like to see the state require all seniors at the end of the school year to take a Golden State like exam designed to measure student knowledge of the learning that was to have taken place in the state required high school social studies classes (World History, US History, US Government, and Economics), with this test to be graded by the state and the scores to be made public on the internet.

    I would not however want to see the state require a passing test score for graduation, as some states have. Nor would I want to see this test solely limited to civics, again as some states are doing.

    My overall goal here is to encourage accountability that’s meaningful yet not super high stakes pressure packed and which, at the same time, provides teachers and schools with an opportunity to downplay the CA HSS standards, if they so wish, and emphasize PBL’s and similar in-depth learning opportunities in their place.

  2. Scott 12 months ago12 months ago

    Thanks for a thoughtful article on the importance of civic education and another contribution to the discussion of how to best emphasize civic competency in our students. I completely agree with your premise that how we test matters, but a few points to mention here as well. 1. Not all multiple choice assessments are created equal. Your example is a terrible, but all too common, example of how social studies assessments can become reductive and … Read More

    Thanks for a thoughtful article on the importance of civic education and another contribution to the discussion of how to best emphasize civic competency in our students. I completely agree with your premise that how we test matters, but a few points to mention here as well.

    1. Not all multiple choice assessments are created equal. Your example is a terrible, but all too common, example of how social studies assessments can become reductive and just a recitation of facts, but there are better examples out there. Having a high quality selected-response assessment could help to drive instruction in a positive direction, though it’s never going to get you all the way there. You pointed out the new AP items for essays, but they’ve also shifted to a similar approach for multiple choice that require students to examine a text and pull in conceptual knowledge to answer a question. Beyond the Bubble (while not MC) has great examples of how you can use sources to spur historical thinking with assessment as well. I know the bad MC is more common, but there are positive examples out there as well and I don’t think it’s right to dismiss the benefits of efficiency from a practical lens for teachers.

    2. An end of course test is not enough by itself and must be paired with more performance-based assessments or experiences to be meaningful. I’m in agreement about how students need to be tackling real community questions, participating in community meetings, even registering to vote.

    Overall, I think social studies educators need to capitalize on the momentum to prioritizing civic education and work as best we can to ensure that we don’t get a lowest common denominator assessment put in place.

  3. Fred Jones 12 months ago12 months ago

    Of course, how a subject-matter is tested has profound implications on how it will be taught ... but if History-Social Science is left behind in any future statewide assessments (the Legislature has previously endorsed limited ELA/Math and the State Board only recently expanded to include Science, leaving the only remaining core academic discipline out), it will continue to be marginalized during the instructional day. Theoretical discussions about appropriate testing approaches seem to miss this more fundamental … Read More

    Of course, how a subject-matter is tested has profound implications on how it will be taught … but if History-Social Science is left behind in any future statewide assessments (the Legislature has previously endorsed limited ELA/Math and the State Board only recently expanded to include Science, leaving the only remaining core academic discipline out), it will continue to be marginalized during the instructional day.

    Theoretical discussions about appropriate testing approaches seem to miss this more fundamental political reality.

    If one cares about civics, one better be pushing Sacramento to include assessments in any future statewide testing & accountability approach … else it will be frozen-out of the classroom and instructional day.

    Replies

    • Don 12 months ago12 months ago

      Fred, because history as a subject is not tested doesn't mean it is necessarily marginalized. Many have been making the case that testing and its corollary, testing to the test, leads to the marginalization of math and ELA. CA graduation requirements include 3 social studies courses, but only 2 math courses. See partial list of requirements below: Unless otherwise specified, each course shall have a duration of one school year: Three courses in English Two courses in … Read More

      Fred, because history as a subject is not tested doesn’t mean it is necessarily marginalized. Many have been making the case that testing and its corollary, testing to the test, leads to the marginalization of math and ELA.

      CA graduation requirements include 3 social studies courses, but only 2 math courses.

      See partial list of requirements below:

      Unless otherwise specified, each course shall have a duration of one school year:

      Three courses in English
      Two courses in mathematics, including one year of Algebra I (EC Section 51224.5)
      Two courses in science, including biological and physical sciences
      Three courses in social studies, including United States history and geography; world history, culture, and geography; a one-semester course in American government and civics, and a one-semester course in economics

  4. Connie 12 months ago12 months ago

    Yea, more teaching to the test!

  5. Paul Muench 12 months ago12 months ago

    I guess you proved your point about multiple choice tests as your little quiz at the end doesn’t even contain the correct answer. That would be all of the above and more!