Publication Date

November 1, 1997

As Education Secretary Richard W. Riley declared in February 1997, during his State of American Education Address at the Carter Center, "If ever there was a time to push American education to a higher level, it is now. The sparks are all around us." The firestorm for educational reform continues to gain momentum on state and federal levels. Forty-nine states are moving forward with the development and implementation of state standards. Forty-two states have generated state assessment examinations linked to state standards. With the infrastructure of national standards under construction in at least a half-dozen fields including history and social studies, President Bill Clinton is calling for national assessment examinations beginning with math and reading.

Although President Clinton has advocated the adoption of educational standards, the implementation of state curriculum guidelines and assessments is not a revolutionary concept. As millions of high school graduates from New York State can attest, the New York State Department of Education has issued curriculum frameworks tied to state "Regents" examinations for decades. The current standards reform movement gained popularity in the 1980s when President Bush and the state governors began promoting educational standards. This call for educational reform resulted in the passage of the GOALS 2000 legislation that funded the development of national standards in core content areas. After much deliberation and public review, the National Center for History in the Schools published the basic edition of the National Standards for History in April 1996.

Support for Higher Standards

What has changed recently is the public support for school reform and higher educational standards. National publications and teacher groups have joined the movement and are now recommending standards as the method for improving student learning. The New York Times Magazine endorsed standards with a cover headline, “The Answer is National Standards.” Education Week advocated standards in the April 1995 issue. This issue proved to be so popular that it is now available on CD-ROM. Teacher unions also have allied with the standards movement. Since 1995 the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has promoted standards by publishing an annual report, Making Standards Matter, that rates various state standards efforts. In a dramatic shift in policy, Bob Chase, the National Education Association president, endorsed higher standards in a February 1997 speech before the National Press Club. Chase said, “The vast majority of Americans who support public education, but are clearly dissatisfied … want higher quality public schools, and they want them now.”1 Standards reform continues to gain public and professional support.

With Wyoming now considering standards, Iowa remains the only state to have fully rejected the standards movement. Last year, Iowa Governor Terry E. Branstad defended his state's right to refuse to implement standards: "We believe that standards-setting should be done locally. We object to the requirement that the state be mandated or forced by the federal government to do this."2 Despite Iowa’s continued resistance, with 49 states participating in state level standards development, standards as a method of school reform, however loosely understood, has become the norm.

While President Clinton, the Department of Education, teacher unions, and the public are promoting national standards and national assessment examinations, states continue to safeguard their control over schools. Geoffrey Fletcher, the acting executive deputy commissioner for curriculum, assessment, and professional development in Texas, commented: "If there is a conflict between the Texas standards and the national standards, this is Texas. And, by God, we would choose Texas standards."3 Even though states may resist federal reform and actively promote their right to an independent educational system, most state departments of education solicit critiques of the standards they are developing from national experts. During the past year, several historians wrote comments on the history/social studies standards of Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., and Wisconsin. Through their efforts, historians were able to strengthen the history component. Wisconsin added the chronological eras outlined in the National History Standards and Illinois added social and environmental history standards.

The Complexity of Reform

Reviewing individual state standards and state assessment examinations is an enormous task. Four states—Hawaii, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Wyoming—have indicated that they will consider state history/social studies standards this year. With state assessment examinations driven by individual state's history standards, a state-by-state evaluation is necessary. Each state's standard is different because it includes a particular state history along with U.S. history and world history. Adding further complexity to educational reform is the degree to which individual states mandate a specific curriculum and require assessments. The degree of local control also varies widely. Wisconsin gives districts broad discretion in writing curricula, while Alabama mandates state-wide assessment examinations. In general, states give school districts broad autonomy; however, they encourage local districts to align their curriculum with state standards. Increasingly, states are implementing state assessment examinations that hold districts accountable for the student learning outlined in state standards. Some states link high-stakes outcomes to assessment by requiring specific scores for grade promotion and graduation requirements. District funding and teacher evaluations may also be related to high-stakes assessments.

Currently, states vary in the grade levels at which they require history examinations and in the degree of difficulty of their history assessments. Some states demand that students be tested in grades 3, 7, and 11; other states mandate examinations in grades 4, 8, and 10; and still others follow unique patterns. States have based some existing examinations on minimum levels of student competency while more recent examinations demand higher levels of student performance. States issue different diplomas for successful performance on state examinations. New York offers two different diplomas; one requires competency tests and the other requires the academically demanding "Regents" examinations. In West Virginia students who pass proficiency exams earn a "warranty" stamp on their diplomas. In 2001 Vermont plans to offer a new "Academic Diploma." As state officials continue to integrate higher standards into their state systems, differentiated diplomas will be the result.

Evaluating the Assessment Tests

Recently, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) published a report on the poor quality of state assessment examinations. State assessment examinations evaluate student mastery of four core subjects: mathematics, English, science, and social studies. FairTest, a critic of norm-referenced standardized tests, promotes performance-based assessments in which students construct a written response to a stimulus or accomplish a task. This report, sponsored by the Ford and Joyce Foundations, analyzed assessment instruments from 47 states. Vermont was the only state that FairTest judged to have adequate assessment examinations. FairTest reported that state assessments generally relied too heavily on multiple choice questions that required only recall and rote knowledge of subject content.4 Restrained by limited funding, state assessments frequently relied on multiple choice items that were machine-scorable. The inclusion of other items such as short-answer questions, free responses, essay questions, and portfolios made scoring more labor intensive and increased administrative costs. The scarcity of such assessment items in state examinations was of concern.

The AFT also issued a report critical of the current state standards and assessment instruments. The AFT annual report on standards and assessment, Making Standards Matter 1997, indicated that of the 49 states committed to standards-base, reform, 39 had developed new or revised standards this year. The report suggested that the overall quality of state standards had improved during the past 12 months. However, the report warned that “most states still need to improve some of their standards in order to provide the basis for a common core of learning.” Standards revision and improvement is an ongoing process, and the AFT report encouraged states to continue revising their standards. In addition, the report noted that “the [present] standards are not strong enough in most states to provide a solid foundation for assessment.” With 42 states implementing state assessments linked to state standards, the weakness of the standards are of increasing concern. The report found that states are looking to the national assessment examinations for guidelines and benchmarks with which to align their state assessments. Although history assessment is not yet a part of the national assessment plans under consideration by Congress, it is likely that a future national history assessment examination would also provide a model for state assessments.5

On the national level, the only federally funded national assessment in history is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Congress mandated that NAEP measure student performance on state and national levels in core subjects in grades 4, 8, and 12. Since 1969 the Department of Education has administered a national assessment examination in U.S. history. NAEP is also currently developing an assessment for world history. In contrast to state assessments that record individualized student scores, the NAEP compares groups of students. NAEP examinations differ from state assessment examinations in several ways. First, Congress prohibits NAEP from giving individual results. Second, each student takes only one part of the multi-hour NAEP examination. Third, participation of states and districts in NAEP is strictly voluntary. Fourth, NAEP is not offered every year.

The New National Examinations

The proposed national assessment examinations in reading and math being developed for the Department of Education include fundamental changes in the present NAEP examination structure. The new national exams will evaluate individual students as opposed to groups of students. During the past 30 years, NAEP has tracked long-term data on student learning trends. By providing a reliable record on student learning within the state and identifying areas of weak performance, NAEP facilitated state curriculum modification without identifying particular students or teachers. NAEP tests also provided national results used for cross-nation comparisons. While supplying useful information, NAEP avoided high-stakes testing and individual teacher and student evaluations.

To ensure the reliability and fairness of NAEP examinations, Congress established the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) in 1989 as an independent bipartisan testing authority. Congress charged NAGB with overseeing the state-by-state collection of NAEP scores. The Clinton Administration has announced that it will send legislation to Congress that authorizes NAGB to oversee construction of the proposed national assessment examinations and to set policy for new national tests in reading and math. However, Secretary Riley announced the inclusion of the NAGB in the oversight process after the Department of Education had already contracted with testing agencies for reading and math assessment tests. Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, has argued that the addition of NAGB as overseer for the national assessment came too late because the Department of Education had selected a testing agency before involving the NAGB.6 Ravitch and other critics pointed out that designating a testing agency without the supervision of an independent board increased the risk that national assessment examinations might be politicized. The Department of Education has scheduled sample reading and math tests to be posted on the Internet in fall 1998 at The development, production, supervision, and implementation procedures used for the reading and math tests will influence the future development of other national assessments.

It is still not certain that a national history assessment will be included in the new national assessment program. Although implementation of a national history assessment has yet to be discussed, the design of the current NAEP examination can suggest one possible model. The Council of Chief State School Officers developed the U.S. History Framework for the 1994 Assessment of Educational Progress for the NAGB. The American Historical Association, the American Institutes for Research, the National Council for History Education, and the National Council for the Social Studies contracted with the Chief State School Officers to develop the 1994 framework. These organizations developed the NAEP examination to reflect a broad consensus of "what is commonly taught and learned and what ought to be grasped by students."7 The inclusion of historians, educators, and citizens on this panel ensured the development of a comprehensive and fair history assessment. The panel recommended that in addition to multiple-choice questions the assessment should employ a wide range of other techniques and procedures to assess student knowledge (such as portfolio assessment and tests for reading and comprehension of primary sources). The NAEP committee also submitted criteria to describe the basic, proficient, and advanced achievement levels.

The current NAEP history examination incorporated many of the recommendations. It divides U.S. history into eight chronological periods and organizes the content around thematic strands. The NAEP framework suggests assessment of student knowledge surrounding four themes: Change and Continuity in American Democracy—Ideas, Institutions, Practices, and Controversies; The Gathering and Interactions of Peoples, Cultures, and Ideas; Economic and Technological Changes and Their Relation to Society, Ideas, and the Environment; and The Changing Role of America in the World. Presently, the NAEP history examination includes multiple-choice items and also constructed-response items. The NAEP exam has a demonstrated track record on the validity and reliability of its test questions. Although the Chief State Officers panel designed the NAEP exam for matrix sampling, testing students who took different sections of a multi-hour examination, the test methods and the 1994 framework can provide an excellent starting point for developing an individual national history assessment.

Over the next few years, the importance of standards will only increase as President Bill Clinton's push for voluntary national assessment examinations accelerates the momentum for educational reform. As we go to press, the Department of Education has scheduled implementation of the national assessment examination for fourth grade reading and eighth grade math in 1999. If the Congress accepts this proposal, the creation of national assessments for history/social studies cannot be far behind. Historians need to renew their participation in the standards movement and contribute to the shaping of history standards and assessment on both the state and national level.


1. Sara Mosie, “The Answer Is National Standards,” New York Times Magazine (Oct. 27, 1997); American Federation of Teachers, Making Standards Matter 1997: An Annual Fifty-StateReport on Efforts to Raise Academic Standards (AFT Educational Issues Department, 1997); Education Week (Apr. 12, 1995); and David S. Broder “National Standards Fever,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Feb. 16, 1997).

2. Lynn Olson, “Standards Times 50,” Education Week (Apr. 12, 1995).

3.Olson, “Standards.”

4. Millicent Lawton, “State Testing Needs Improvement, Study Finds,” Education Week (Sept. 3, 1997).

5.Making Standards Matter, 11, 12, and v.

6. Diane Ravitch, “National Tests: A Good Idea Going Wrong,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Aug. 31, 1997).

7. National Assessment Governing Board, U.S. Department of Education, U.S. History Framework for the 1994 Assessment of Educational Progress (Washington, D.C.: National Assessment Governing Board, 1994).

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