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Journal of American History

Role of Testing in Teaching American History

Editors' Introduction
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser

We Are Not Ready to Assess History Performance
Richard Rothstein

What Is the Historical Significance of the Advanced Placement Test?
Timothy A. Hacsi

Crazy for History
Sam Wineburg

"Will That Be on the Exam?"
The Role of Testing in Teaching and Learning American History

Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser
Contributing Editors, Textbooks and Teaching

Editors' Introduction

"Will that be on the exam?" The question is annoying, but it reflects an inescapable dimension of American education. Success or failure on tests affects the academic careers and life choices of students and, increasingly, the funding and operation of schools at the elementary, secondary, and collegiate levels. Federal and state laws mandate proficiency tests to measure whether taxpayers are getting their money's worth in the campaign to raise educational standards without (supposedly) leaving any child "behind." Whether we like it or not, such tests influence what and how we teach, and what and how our students learn. Educators frequently complain about the restrictions involved in teaching to a standardized test devised and imposed by an outside authority, but even when we use examinations that we have developed ourselves, we are encouraging students to limit their intellectual curiosity to what we test. If we answer no to the question of whether a particular topic will be covered by an exam, we strongly signal that knowledge of this topic is not as important as knowledge of those topics that will be covered. Deciding what knowledge to assess and how to assess it are essential and ineluctable aspects of history instruction as practiced in the United States today.

For commentary on the role of testing in teaching and learning American history, we solicited articles from three prominent scholars of trends in American education, each with experience bridging the academic and policy-making realms in contemporary debates over curricular content and pedagogy. Let us introduce each author and article in turn.

Richard Rothstein is a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute and, this year, a visiting lecturer at Teachers College, Columbia University . Formerly education columnist of the New York Times, he is the author of The Way We Were? The Myths and Realities of America's Student Achievement (1998) and, with Luis Benveniste and Martin Carnoy, All Else Equal: Are Public and Private Schools Different? (2003). In his article, Rothstein argues that the assessment of history performance is plagued by confusion over both ends and means. In particular, he challenges as unproven the common assertion that historical knowledge makes for better citizenship, and he questions whether standardized tests, however carefully devised, can accurately assess historical skills other than the memorization of facts.

Trained as a social historian, Timothy A. Hacsi is the author of Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America (1997) and Children as Pawns: The Politics of Educational Reform (2002). He teaches at the University of Massachusetts , Boston . His article focuses on the history and impact of the College Board's Advanced Placement ( AP ) examination program. By Hacsi's account, the AP test, like many other standardized tests, was designed to produce educational reform, and it has led to noteworthy changes in the way top students are taught American history and other subjects in many high schools. Yet Hacsi expresses concern about the outcome of this apparent success story. He fears that--more than it has improved the quality of history education--the AP program has reinforced existing inequalities in American society.

The last and longest article is by Sam Wineburg, professor of education at Stanford University . Wineburg, trained as a cognitive psychologist, is the author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (2001), which won the 2002 Frederic W. Ness award of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, given to "the book that best illuminates the goals and practices of a contemporary liberal education."1 Wineburg surveys the results of standardized American history tests over the past century and finds student performance remarkably consistent. The reason, he explains, has less to do with how history is taught or what students really know than with how historical knowledge is measured. He describes in wonderfully accessible detail how standardized tests are constructed and why we should not expect to see improvement in test scores anytime soon. While he doubts standardized tests will disappear, he sketches an alternative approach to history education and assessment that would liberate students and teachers from the inexorable demands of the bell curve.

Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser are professors of history at Oberlin College . Readers may contact him at <gary.kornblith@oberlin.edu> and her at <carol.lasser@oberlin.edu>.

Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser are professors of history at Oberlin College.

Readers may contact him at <gary.kornblith@oberlin.edu> and her at <carol.lasser@oberlin.edu>.

1 "The Association of American Colleges and Universities Awards the 2002 Frederic W. Ness Book Award to Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts by Sam Wineburg," press release, Jan. 26, 2002 <http://www.aacu-edu.org/news_room/press_releases/wineburg.cfm> (Dec. 4, 2003).