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Authentic Assessments for History-Social Science


Multiple-choice, true false, short answer, matching, and other types of standardized tests target only factual knowledge at a recall level, and often do more to measure how well students take a test than what they actually know.  Common Core standards and Smarter Balanced Assessments indicate that education is trying to move away from total dependence on that one type of assessment.  Since the traditional summative tests don’t always measure what is important to measure, in some schools students won’t have the opportunity to learn higher level skills such as analysis, problem solving, and application.  According to cooperative learning experts, Spencer and Miguel Kagan, tests don’t measure how well a student can revise and edit an essay, or create or interpret texts and artistic expressions.  Authentic assessments are trying to remedy that flaw by creating multiple measures by which student progress in important skills can be measured. Authentic assessments are best scored by the use of rubrics. They can be scored by different aged students, peers, or themselves as well as the teacher. One of the most important features of authentic assessment is the student’s reflection, not only at the end of the project, but along the way. However, teachers need to note one that in order for authentic assessments to work, students may work collaboratively, but they are scored individually.

Authentic Assessments that work well for history-social science:

Building Models

Students who build models or museum exhibits practice many skills.  They debate, share ideas, make decisions, reach consensus, and present findings in a physical form. One program that makes use of this authentic type of assessment is the History Day Program. One of the categories of the competition is Exhibits.  These projects can be about many topics, but align to a yearly theme. One of the advantages to participation in History Day is that student projects are judged by adults outside the classroom setting.  Students explain or show their project and participate in an interview after the presentation.

Classroom Discussion

Classroom discussion explores issues and faces misconceptions, and biases.  Teachers begin by setting the context using text, lecture, video or power point. Students also need direct instruction in skill building such as: civil discourse when there are differing viewpoints, understanding bias, determination of purpose and audience, evaluating sources of information, and questioning strategies. To scaffold for English learners it helps to have ground rules, specific language, and academic language sentence starters that students are required to use as they respond to one another.

A Slam Debate is a short version of debate in which students group themselves using a strategy called Four Corners (Strongly agree to strongly disagree) on an issue. They pick an opening person to persuade the audience that the group has a valid stand based on reason, but using an emotional appeal. Each team has one minute to present their argument. Person Two has two minutes to deliver the meat of the argument using reasoning skills and evidence. Finally, person 3 has the responsibility in 30 seconds to bring the position to an emotional conclusion. Then students vote with their feet, and reflect on why they chose to move or stay. In a formal debate the opening statement, rebuttal, and closing argument is similar to legal formats and gives students an opportunity to present what they know while avoiding hostility, direct antagonism by modestly trying to persuade others in a dispassionate, objective political-type arena.

Document-Based Questions (DBQs)

The DBQ Project is a product that engages students with both American and World History primary and secondary source  documents.  DBQ tasks and activities reinforce practically every area of the Common Core Standards. Students analyze the information within historical documents to draw out evidence, facts and reasons for their own thesis i which answers a meaningful driving or focus question.  From that thesis statement they write a persuasive essay.

Economic Simulations

Simulations are imitations of real world activities over time.  Economic simulations and activities allow students to play with the stock market, or international trade or supply and demand in a setting that seems real, but no real money is invested.  Sometimes students are given a set amount of “money” to invest or trade, and they follow their choices in real-time for a period of time.  At the end of the simulation, they take stock of how well they have done. When I taught 4th grade fifteen years ago our students played the Oregon Trail in which their character had choices to make in order to travel safely from St. Louis to Sacramento with some money left at the end of the journey to buy mining supplies.  Students kept a journal and kept records of how much they earned or lost each day.  Computer simulations have come a long ways in 15 years, but simulations are still engaging and teach critical thinking skills as well as reading and writing skills. Project Citizen is a program that teaches students to make public policy, which always has an economic as well as a social issue component. California Council for Economic Education has some interactive simulation games as does the Federal Reserve.

Environmental Education Initiative

This curriculum meets standards for history, science and environmental studies in units that can replace the textbook for the specific standards they address.  Available through CDE at no cost, the Environmental Education Initiative  materials offer high quality modules for grades K-12.  Teacher can download the material at after they fill in a form because the materials are password protected.

Interactive Mapping

National Geographic Society’s website, is just one of many online resources that have maps and activities.  Interactive means that students can make choices.  They start by choosing a region to study, then a smaller area, such as a state.  Next they choose physical, human or environmental systems.  With each choice the map changes or a text boxes pop out giving students information.   Google Earth is another online resource that has many uses.   Students can practically walk the streets virtually.  If they are studying a novel there are units already developed using maps and pictures.  They can connect their own pictures and maps to create their own virtual itineraries as well.  The California Geographic Alliance also has interactive maps.  Spatial thinking is one of the history analysis skills that integrates will with reading literature as well as reading for information because all stories have settings.

Little Women

Mock Trials and Simulated Hearings

Both a mock trial event and a simulated hearing require students to formulate and present an argument for or against an issue. These activities assess students both in social studies and civic education content as well as addressing many Common Core standards. Students write an argument based on evidence, facts and reasoning ahead of the hearing or trial. However, during the course of the presentation the student presenting their argument may be interrupted by questions or objections, from a student attorney or even an actual judge who is trying the case, or and attorney who is judging a simulated hearing. Students are then forced to defend their viewpoint based on evidence. For example, We the People publishes simulated congressional hearings. Constitutional Rights Foundation publishes mock trial cases. Researching online teachers can also find famous court cases appropriate to use with students. Students don’t know the outcome of the case, and they received primary sources and make the judgments for themselves before they read what the Supreme Court actually decided. Many local and state Councils for the Social Studies have resource links on their websites. Our local Council for the Social Studies,SJVCSS, which is affiliated with California Council for the Social Studies has a very complete page or useful links thanks to the work of Dr. Peg Hill from the Inland Empire Council for the Social Studies.

Problem-Based Inquiry and Project-Based Learning

Based on a driving question, using an effective hook to start the inquiry, project or problem-based learning allows the students’ natural curiosity  to motivate them to learn content.  In addition students solve problems at the same time.   In order to complete the project students must research, question, creatively problem solve, and present their product – preferably to an evaluator outside of the classroom. Brown University and Buck Institute for Education both have excellent materials. Bruce Lesh’s book, “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answers.” also has several complete lesson examples.

Service Learning

Service learning can be more than planting a community garden, picking up trash in the local park, or singing at a retirement center.  California Department of Education defines service learning as an “instructional strategy whereby students learn academic content standards by participating in organized service that addresses community needs and fosters civic responsibility.” While all the above activities foster civic responsibility and address a need, the teacher needs to insure that there is an academic part of the activity.  For example, students that research about the plants, take part in an economic simulation as they decide which seeds to purchase,  or consider whether to buy genetically engineered or heirloom seeds are integrating social studies with the activity of planting a garden.  Constitutional Rights Foundation and  Center for Civic Education both have excellent materials and lesson plans for service learning projects.

Skits, Readers Theaters, and Performances

Students who create their own performances learn content and language arts at a high level. They have to make iessential decisions about what facts and details are most important to portray in order to make a compelling story. National History Day offers students this opportunity in the Performance category. Shy students can use technology and do somewhat same thing, filming their presentation out of the classroom and presenting a Documentary.  NHD-California has many useful research tools for teachers and students as well.  Below is a student who is presenting at an event called Civil War Time Travelers in Fresno, California.  She and her classmates wrote a readers’ theater using diaries of children from the Civil War.  They presented the readers’ theater to thousands of 5th and 8th grade students from Tulare, Kings, Fresno, and Madera Counties that participated in this event.  Participating students went from learning station to learning station taking pictures, interviewing actors, taking notes.  After the event they wrote a time period newspaper and submitted it for judgement to the Fresno County Historical Society.  In this way both the presenters and the participants took part in an academic activity that met both Common Core standards for English Language arts and History-Social Science.

There are many forms of authentic assessments that work for history-social studies. .  The students in the picture below are presenting their state History Day Performance at a Tulare County Historical Society Board of Directors’ meeting.

Adding just a few of the types of assessments listed above will add spice and life to the history-social science classroom. Students remember what they do for years. They will also remember the teacher that allowed them voice and choice and a chance to be creative.  Enjoy authentic assessments.

17 replies »

  1. Marsha, this is a fabulous post delving into ways to captures students’ attention in genuine ways. They’re certainly ways that I enjoyed in high school, from the debates to the exhibits. I remember doing an exhibit on mold and got into a semi-finals event for it (no win but still exciting). Your photo of the exhibit brought back great memories!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much. That was my most popular post for several years. There was a professor that must have been assigning it as reading for their students. When I was regional lead for our seven county offices in the curriculum sub committee for history-social-science in CA, we each took one area of the common core and wrote a research article about how we could relate history to the common core. That was my contribution. I don’t think it was ever published by the state by the time we finished with the entire project. I never saw it anyway. So I have posted it so that it might do some good. It honors me that you read it. 🙂


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  6. I agree 1OO% with the direction that Common Core is going. I agree with Kagan that simple answers to questions cannot show if a student understands history fully. The strategies that engage students and get them to think and examine historical sources can do nothing but benfit them in other classes. Thinkers are must more apt to do well in other classes than student who can point to an answer. The development of higher level thinking and cognitive thinking skills will go far to create students who are far better prepared for the world we are sending them into. The last thing is that these kinds of lessons are LOTS more fun that Test Prep lessons!!!


    • History classes have the unique role in teaching students to question the sources from which the information comes. Is a primary source better than a secondary source that studies many primary sources from an objective position? The lesson on Nat Turner is a great story to begin to teach students to think critically about more than just looking for facts from the textbook. The Common Core supports these skills, teaching students to examine point of view. Thanks for taking the class, Ricardo. 🙂





Hi, I'm Marsha Ingrao, a retired educator and wife of a retired realtor. My all-consuming hobby is blogging and it has changed my life. My friends live all over the world. In November 2020, we sold everything and retired to the mile-high desert of Prescott, AZ. We live less than five miles from the Granite Dells, four lakes, and hundreds of trails with our dog, Kalev, and two cats, Moji and Nutter Butter. Vince's sister came with us and lives close by. Every day is a new adventure.

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