Currently I am student teaching for an AP U.S. History course (popularly referred to as “APUSH”) at Roosevelt High School in the Seattle School District. I had an important sit-down with my mentor teacher early in the year about how assessments worked in a class as rigorous and expansive as this. I learned that each and every Friday, students would turn in “Key Terms,” which consist of twenty terms taken from the chapter of the textbook. Students are to identify each term and determine their significance. In the last twenty minutes of class every Friday, students were to take a chapter quiz on these same key terms. Some questions would necessitate a closer reading than others, but the tests were designed to test not only chapter reading, but chapter comprehension.
At first I wasn’t all too stoked about the idea of weekly quizzes. “A quiz every precious week just to check in on pretty wry textbook readings?” I wondered. It wasn’t until I saw this in action that I understood why these quizzes were essential to genuine engagement in other aspects of the course. As my mentor teacher had explained, these quizzes tested students’ knowledge — their retention and understanding of the topics at hand. The Key Terms facilitated the jump from Bloom’s first taxonomy category: Remembering, to the second: Understanding. The quizzes added the necessary pressure to ensure students developed the knowledge of the perhaps somewhat dry information they would certainly need to engage more fully in the more colorful and complicated issues of History.
Class time allowed for students to apply this knowledge gained from studying up for weekly quizzes to more timeless concepts. We must know something of the Founding Fathers before we can analyze their prescription for freedom, after all. So it is in the classroom itself that students in this course have the freedom to explore Applying and Analyzing, the next two on the list of Bloom’s taxonomy. From there, my mentor explained, we can ask students to engage more fully with history, and ask them to think for themselves: to evaluate historical events and create their own judgements on the past. Students can more comfortably engage in big questions like “Did the Founding Fathers’ vision for the United States in fact materialize?” with the knowledge and comprehension the quizzes solidify under their belts. Students must depend on their understanding of the Founding Fathers and their vision of freedom to effectively evaluate its impact and presence in today’s world.
Unit tests, papers, and projects in the course test for things much bigger than just raw knowledge — that’s what those pesky Key Terms and quizzes are, after all! In these unit tests, papers, and projects, my mentor teacher explained, students have the freedom to explore and interpret historical happenings and concepts. Unit tests consist of short and long essay responses and document-based interpretations. Papers ask students to formulate arguments about times’ past, and substantiate such arguments with evidence. Projects allow for genuine creativity and extrapolation — students have the chance to dress up and act as historical figures, engage in debate about the very same complex topics that echoed in Congress halls, and even get to create historical scenarios of their own making in a presentation on the “what if’s?” of history. In this last project, students get to formulate and research questions such as: What would have happened had Hitler not invaded Russia? Or had Roosevelt lived to the age of 90? Or had the United States opted not to fight in the Vietnam War? These other types of assessments depend on the knowledge gleaned from the course’s infamous Key Terms and quizzes. How would students know which question to ask of History if they didn’t know what had already happened?
And so, while the formative assessments of knowledge are perhaps not the most exciting parts of teaching, they are absolutely essential to explore those more stimulating and creative aspects of the classroom. My mentor teacher can bring the class to a whole different intellectual and exciting level all because she uses formal, formative assessment to ensure students are keeping up with, remembering, and comprehending the textbook reading.
From the textbook we make our way into the historical inquiries and argumentation of Howard Zinn’s A Peoples History and Richard Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. We begin with a discussion of Zinn’s first chapter on Monday, and I can hardly wait to see what these students come up with!