How to Create Assessments that Evaluate Historical Thinking Skills

I previously wrote about how I came to conceptualize how I would assess historical thinking in my classroom, now I thought I would show you how these tests come together.

As always, I start with the skills and content knowledge that have been practiced in that Unit. At the beginning of the year, I assess content knowledge more directly, as students are still building their skills. As the year progresses, my assessments become more and more skill focused. If a skill is brand new, I don’t usually throw it on an assessment.

Skill-based questions can be fairly simple. Here are some of my generic questions below.

  • What is the historical context of this document/ source?
  • What was the purpose of this document/ source? (Why was this document/ source created?)
  • What is the point-of-view of this document/ source? (This question requires extra review and reinforcement, as point-of-view is also a skill in English, and it’s taught very differently. If I ask about bias, it’s a separate question)
  • How reliable is the author of this document/ source?

I know these questions seem very generic, however, they can be utilized endlessly with different source combinations. Obviously, these skills require primary sources. I take original sources, and then edit the text so that they are accessible to students at a reasonable reading level. I might leave in a few unfamiliar words, but those words are not necessary for students to know to ascertain an overall understanding of the document. I also use maps or cartoons when they’re available and they can be turned into an accessible document for middle schoolers.

On the actual physical test, I’ll include a short answer box for students to write two to three sentences to answer the question.

In New York State, the new Regents will also require students to be able to compare and contrast with primary sources, along describing cause and effect with documents or identify a turning point associated with the documents. These skills have to be scaffolded very carefully with middle schoolers. My students are still learning how to use a document or a source in their writing, and that wording needs to be articulated and modeled. I might have students answer a cause and effect question, however, they might only need to use one document in their answer (the rest of the answer would come from their content knowledge). I often even provide them with a scaffold for their writing while they’re taking the assessment. This relieves some anxiety among students while they’re completing the test.

Generic Short Essay questions

  • Discuss how the document/ source provided above shows a cause of the ___________________. Then, discuss the effect of the _________________________.
  • Describe how this document/ source shows a turning point of the _________________________.
  • Compare and contrast the ______________________________________. Use the document/ source above as part of your answer.

Again, as students are first starting out with this style of writing, I might add a scaffold to the test as part of the answer box section (especially for Special Education students), or I might add a scaffold on the projector at the front of the room so that students can reference it as they write. This doesn’t make the test any easier for students, but it does train them in the correct style of writing, and ease some anxiety.

I’m aware that there will also be stimulus-style multiple choice on the new Regents. I’ve written a few of these questions to incorporate into my assessments, and I hope to add more eventually. I’m waiting for more example questions to be released by the state so that I can model the test questions I write with similar language.

As I’ve noted previously, this process is completely trial and error, and I’m sure I’ll modify my exams in the years ahead. Although I’ve certainly considered the Regents exam as I’ve developed my assessments, I’m more concerned with making sure that my students are building their historical thinking and reasoning skills. Those skills will carry them through their lives, and help them to critically analyze the information they come across in the real world. That’s much more important to me than any exam.

Have you started creating assessments that address historical thinking? How have you found the process? Add your suggestions to the comments below. 





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