Letters to the Editor

On Assessment

Christopher L. Doyle, April 2015

To the Editor:

I respond to the “Assessment” section in the January 2015 Perspectives on History.

During my short career as an academic historian, I had occasion to send my work to several peer-reviewed journals in my field. I was consistently impressed by the thoughtful, engaged, critical comments of the anonymous readers who responded to my scholarship. Their marginalia sharpened vague prose, suggested where I might cut or elaborate, and even corrected typos. Journal editors would also send the readers’ narrative critiques. Those summarized my argument, analyzed how my work built on or challenged current thinking, and made recommendations about whether to publish.

The method of assessment those readers employed so diligently represents a craft, the same craft I had been exposed to in graduate school when writing my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation. Undergraduates encounter this craft when professors return research papers and essays. I expect Perspectives readers know well the details of this craft. It involves intimate engagement with someone else’s work. At its best, it nurtures outstanding scholarship, builds on strengths, reduces weaknesses, and nudges the writer to higher truths. At the most demanding academic levels, the only “grade” the craft imposes is to judge whether the work merits a degree, or publication.

The intimacy of this craft makes it somewhat idiosyncratic, as is history itself. My anonymous readers seized on different points to praise or criticize. Their recommendations about publishing were often mixed, with majority and minority reports pro and con. I made revisions selectively, synthesizing their criticisms, and then the editor decided how to proceed. Craft can be quirky, its outcomes highly individualistic, but it works.

How distressing to read the latest trends in undergraduate history assessment which have nothing to do with craft. Instead, they replicate the worst norms of primary and secondary education (my current workplace) themselves bastardizations of tools from the corporate world. The AHA’s “Tuning project” has spawned a “history discipline core” articulated in 47 bullet points in Perspectives. Instructors have “aligned” assessments to this core and developed scoring rubrics meant to quantify “mastery.” Named with a linguistic turn straight from a 19th-century workhouse, these techniques take the same approach as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core Standards.

Evidently no one doing the new assessment has read any of the voluminous scholarship critical of its standards-driven emphasis. The works of Alfie Kohn, Ted Sizer, Linda Darling Hammond, and Jonathan Kozol are good places to start. Those authors, and many others, point out how quantification and standardization oversimplify, depersonalize, and are fundamentally flawed.

As, for example, is the “history capstone rubric” loaded with subjective adjectives such as “persuasive,” “creative,” and “complex.” Like all such tools, this rubric formulaically adds or subtracts adjectives as a default method of scoring. Thus a level 1 historical argument has “no clear rationale,” a level 2 has “some rationale,” while a level 4 has a “persuasive and creative rationale.” There exists scholarship explicitly critical of rubrics, such as Maja Wilson’s Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment (2006), but apparently no one read that, either.

Additionally, the chart for “measuring historical thinking skills” reduces nuanced judgments about thought to check boxes ranging from “mastery” to “needs work.” Author Jonathan Chu calls this chart a “matrix,” blithely noting that: “Having developed the matrix, we found the actual process of data collection and review not terribly onerous.” Undoubtedly it was not, because the chart oversimplifies the entire process of meaningful review.

Anne Hyde is disarmingly candid when she confesses that the Tuning project has created a “discipline core” that now requires “figur[ing] out ways to use.” It is a solution in search of a problem. If Hyde really believes the “discipline core” will placate students and parents who question the purpose of history, then she has not paid attention to trends at the primary and secondary levels where standards have dramatically increased public, media, and legislative hostility to educators.

Demands for quantifiable outcomes and “accountability” are inextricably linked to the business world. Of course, business is regnant in America. Yet, I do not understand why the AHA thoughtlessly embraces its techniques without subjecting them to historical thinking. Why are historians not detaching from trends of the moment, placing those trends in contexts of power, analyzing language, and articulating our own larger meanings? Why are we ignoring our own deep-rooted methodology and craft?

Christopher L. Doyle
Director of Global Studies
Watkinson School, Hartford, CT


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