Accelerating Student Learning and Motivation in Your U.S. History Classroom

Alternative Assessments

Why Study U.S. History?
Using the Standards
Standardized Exams
Developing Themes in U.S. History
Historical Stories and Unit Hooks
Using Primary Sources in the Classroom
General Strategies
Alternative Assessments
Rubrics and Scaffolds
Long Term Projects
Additional Resources
Kevin Williams: Contact and Information

Alternative Assessment Rationale:
Any assessment should try to find out what students learned in any given unit of study – no more, no less.  It should be fair – if you are going to test students on reading materials not covered during class time, then you should inform them of this. 


But, the key to any good assessment is simple.  You are trying to see how well they learned what you covered in class.  Alternative assessments are good because they are testing based on material covered specifically as part of class projects, presentations or PowerPoints.  Students feel comfortable with this assessment because they are familiar with the context and material.

Suffrage Parade, March 3, 1913

I.  Slideshow Exam


Rationale: The idea of assessment, really, is to find out how well students learned the material.  It has always been hard for me to let go of the traditional exam – multiple choice and essay – mostly because I believe in that form of assessment.  Students need to know how to take multiple choice exams because of the realities of standardized testing.  They absolutely need to know how to write a historical essay.


But they need to know how to do other things as well…


The slideshow exam offers a low stress test taking environment.  Students simply do the following:


1.      Identify each image you show them.  They simply tell you what the image is showing – it is easier if you do this in the context of a unit, and it makes sense to give the students a list of possibilities. 

2.      Students must state what part of the image led them to their choice.  This is crucial – it ties the image to their knowledge, and this represents the skill we are trying to teach them.

3.      This is low stress because typically, there is more than one correct answer.  The student simply needs to explain himself well, using the image, and he will get full credit.

4.      Students should have seen most of the images in class BEFORE the slideshow exam.  I add a few slides they haven’t seen, but these are typically very hard for them.  Mix in some familiar images.


Example – Progressivism Histories Project


As a final assessment for the Progressivism Presentations, I take 10 slides from student presentations, and make a short PowerPoint (you could easily take 10 images and put them on overheads).  I let the students keep their list of Progressive laws that we covered as part of the project.  Then I have them follow the directions above.
To see the lesson that we talked about during the seminar, click the link below:
Progressivism PowerPoint Project.  I have included the actual research sheets.  Sometimes I don't like to spend time in the library (too much time wasted).  At times like these, I provide the required research.


II.  Music / Audio Clip Exam


The rationale is the same as the slideshow exam, but it still is different.  Again, use this in lieu of either the multiple choice or the essay section.


1.      Play a song or an audio clip (typically, you wouldn’t use this test until the 20th century, when recorded music flourishes – but you could find recordings of earlier music; especially from the Civil War and beyond) 

2.      Have students try to identify a specific part of the unit of study that the music might represent. 

3.   It might be useful to have lyrics – really it depends on the song and how familiar it might be.  Again, like the slideshow, mix in familiar music.


                 James Gerard, "Loyalty", 1917

(WWI Propaganda - "Destroy This Mad Brute")

III.  Propaganda Exam


Rationale: When propaganda is a large part of a unit – The American Civil War, World War One or World War Two, it is easy to incorporate propaganda images, music or film into the exam.  Simply show images, and ask students to interpret:
  • The direct purpose of the propaganda
  • The propaganda technique being used (refer to pages 168-169 for the eight propaganda techniques)
  • The effects of the propaganda

(click the image above to see a copyable version of the image)

IV.  Film Clip Exam


Again, simply find a film clip and see if the students can figure out how it relates to the unit of study. 
Example:  Show "Bert the Turtle:  Duck and Cover" propaganda film found at the Prelinger Archives.  Ask students to analyze the film: 
  • What was the purpose of the film
  • What propaganda techniques were being used in making the film (you may want to refer to the EIGHT techniques listed on pages 168-169.
  • Do you think this was an effective film?

Battle At Kruger, from YouTube

Don't forget, another excellent video for alternative assessment is the Battle At Kruger video.  In the seminar we discussed using this as a way to have students discuss Social Darwinism.  But really, I was impressed when my student told me that he thought it was a better example of the power of unions.  You can watch the video on You Tube by following this link:
And again, you can PERMANENTLY have this video by using the converter.

V.  Relative Significance


Relative significance offers an excellent opportunity for alternative assessment.  It requires that students use a wide array of information given during presentations.  By testing on information given during presentations, you are justifying your use of the project. Oftentimes, students complain that the work was meaningless, or “busy work”.  If you write your assessments to test what you taught, or what the students did in the form of projects and presentations, you lend legitimacy to what they did.
Example:  Civil Rights Movement:  Were National leaders more significant than "grass roots" leaders?
Click on the image to go to a website detailing Rosa Parks' Congressional Medal of Honor.  This site contains great images of both Rosa Parks and E.D. Nixon.

What or who was the most significant part of the Montgomery Bus Boycott?


VI.  Document Exam


Use documents in a similar way as you would use other primary sources mentioned above.  Two methods could be:

a.       Use documents for simple identification.  Present one document and ask students to tie it to an idea in history.

b.      Give several documents and ask students to use them in answering an essay question (this is similar to the Document Based Question) given in A.P. History.

1.      You can use all the documents for an in-class / group SOAP exam.

2.      You could let the students choose 2 documents to integrate into their essay

3.      You could make the students use most or all the documents (only recommended for A.P. level students)


VII.  Problem Based Assessment


A great way for students to show what they’ve learned is to give them a problem and ask them to solve it using the information they’ve learned as part of the unit.  This technique is known as problem-based assessment.


According to the Buck Institute, there are many benefits associated with problem-based learning:


In problem-based learning, students are actively engaged in solving a problem—like those confronted in the world outside of school—which has more than one possible solution and requires investigation, the use of various resources, and collaboration.


Through the process, students develop “need to know” content and skills of a discipline in order to devise and present their solution to the problem. This increases motivation, improves retention of knowledge, and builds skills that can be transferred to other areas of school, work and life.
Example:  How to preserve Angel Island - the immigration station of the West Coast?
Click on the image below to go to the Angel Island Immigration Station Home Page.


Other Online Sources: