Assessing Historical Thinking Skills with Middle School Students

When I first realized that the new New York State assessments would require knowledge of historical thinking skills four years ago, I was honestly excited. Rote memorization had never made me fulfilled as a history teacher. I’ve always preferred to teach my students to think, and I was happy that I would now be teaching them to think about history.

Once I moved past that initial excitement, I realized I would need to think about assessment in an entirely new way. How would I tackle assessing content and historical thinking (or reasoning) skills with the middle school students? These students still needed to understand and remember content, and now I would have to be adding in historical thinking skills also? It was quite a daunting prospect.

The assessments I’ve developed over the past four years have been the result of true trial and error. Over the years, I’ve adopted several principles which guide my assessment process. I’ve tried my best to outline those principles for you below so that you can apply them to your own classroom.

1. Skills and Content must be assessed together.

Students are still required to know the content. That requirement hasn’t gone away, and it shouldn’t. Unfortunately, if I created assessments that assessment skills and content separately, I would be assessing students too much. Middle school students seriously suffer from assessment burnout. My assessments still needed to be contained within one class period. Therefore, skills and content would need to be assessed at the same time.

As I began to conceptualize the new skills, I realized that students would need to know the content to answer the questions anyway. How might a student explain the historical context of a particular primary source if they don’t know that actual history? How would they know the point-of-view if that don’t know the viewpoints that really existed at that time? The content wasn’t going away, it would still be assessed indirectly.

2.  The Skills must be Gradually Introduced and then Repeated, and Repeated, and Repeated… 

Middle school students take a WHILE to understand and grasp new skills. They also need constant repetition of what those skills mean. Even though I’ve to explained historical context many, many times now, I still need to reintroduce the phrase with bell ringers, posters, and I need to constantly work it into the classroom dialogue. Students need to be beyond familiar with the language of historical thinking. Their understanding needs to be internalized so that they can recognize that skils when the time comes.

I begin the year by introducing sourcing and historical context. They’re the most versatile historical thinking skills, and I can apply them to any topic throughout the year. As the year progresses, I introduce purpose, point-of-view, bias, compare and contrast, and cause and effect. Some of these skills are merely practiced within my seventh-grade classroom, while others are assessed with frequency by the end of the class year.

It is my hope that eventually these skills will be introduced before grade 7. Really, instruction should start in elementary school.

3. Primary and Secondary Sources need to be Ubiquitous in my Classroom.

My students are reading and analyzing primary and secondary sources on a daily basis in my classroom. Students need to see language that not as easily accessible as a textbook. They need to recognize that they will be required to read carefully and slowly to find meaning. If you teach middle school, you know that your students can skip past the most obvious information. Reading for detail requires training, and the middle school brain is not very adept at reading for that detail. Therefore, I make sure that when I use primary and secondary sources, that they are a central part of the lesson. Students have to read carefully to find the answers – the can’t skip past the source.

One I established those principles, I then needed to conceptualize how my students would be able to demonstrate their skills and content knowledge in my assessments. I decided to divide the content for each Unit into separate lessons. Each lesson would address some content knowledge and one or two historical thinking skills. While the content would always be changing, the skills would be repeated throughout the year.

I practice standards-based grading in my classroom, so I divided my tests into separate lessons and then attached a rubric to each lesson. The rubric is just a generic rubric from no evidence to mastery. To make my life much easier, I assess each lesson holistically. Students can sign up to retest a lesson if needed, and they are provided with some reteaching and a new test. (I hardly ever repeat the same exact questions).

This process is not perfect. I’m always modifying the wording of particular assessments to make sure that they match student understanding. As students gain historical thinking knowledge, they can still be tripped up by the unfamiliar wording of a question. They still need constant reminders to persevere through tricky language and to read a test in its entirety. Still, I feel much better about these assessments than my old rote memory tests. If my students walk away from my classroom with a better understanding of how to think critically, I feel like I’ve accomplished what I set forth to do.

Have you started to assess historical thinking skills in your classroom? What has been your experience? 

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