NAEP FrameworkView Best in Class
Our review of the NAEP FrameworkThis report is part of our "The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011" report.
The principal strength of the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) U.S. History Framework, used once again in the 2010 assessment cycle, is that it provides an evenhanded, thoughtful, and ideologically balanced approach to U.S. history. The framework could, however, do a better job of defining what is most essential and important for U.S. history courses to cover.
Organization of the Standards
The NAEP history framework is designed to outline:
- what history content and skills should be measured at grades 4, 8, and 12;
- how the domain of content is most appropriately measured in a large-scale assessment; and
- how much of the content domain, in terms of knowledge and skills, should students know and be able to do at the basic, proficient, and advanced levels.
In order to do this, the framework is divided into three sections: four â€œthemes in U.S. history,â€ eight chronological â€œperiods of U.S. history,â€ (shown below), and specific â€œways of thinking about U.S. history.â€ Within each chronological period, the framework also provides thorough and specific â€œdefining questionsâ€ (organized around the four themes) in order to structure the essential knowledge and skills that students need to succeed on the U.S. history assessment.
The NAEP Framework, it must be emphasized, is offered as just that: a framework on which to plan and draft assessment testing. It is not a set of standards for classroom instruction. However, as Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber Winkler have observed, assessment frameworks are widely used â€œin standards setting and benchmarking particularlyâ€ because, ultimately, â€œwhat gets tested is what gets taught.â€ It is â€œtherefore important to appraise their contentâ€ and â€œtheir likely impact at the classroom levelâ€â€”even though state officials must remain aware of frameworksâ€™ â€œlimitations and… appreciate what else may be needed to generate complete standards and curricula.â€
The Framework begins with some basic assumptions about the nature of U.S. history in order to â€œestablish a context that includes the political, social, cultural, economic, technological, philosophical, and religious dimensions of human activities.â€ These assumptions include:
- Analyzing change and continuity over time by exploring â€œthe range of choices that have been available to peopleâ€ and â€œhave been the most significant in our nationâ€™s developmentâ€;
- Including the perspective of both â€œfamous people and ordinary individuals and events on the grand scale and in everyday life to convey the ideas and experiences that have shaped U.S. historyâ€ (emphasis added);
- Studying the nationâ€™s political ideals of individual dignity, individual rights, civic virtue, democracy, the rule of law, equal justice, and the right to dissent;
- Recognizing that students â€œmust know the specific facts of American historyâ€ in order to â€œjudge evidence responsiblyâ€ and understand â€œhow complex and sometimes ambiguous the explanation of historical events can beâ€ (emphasis added); and
- Addressing the conflict between the founding proposition that â€œall men are created equalâ€ and the reality â€œthat enormous inequalities…were common and accepted practice throughout the world at the outset of the American experimentâ€ (emphasis added).
As indicated above, particularly by the italicized phrases, the Framework specifically and admirably avoids both presentismâ€”the tendency to view past events through todayâ€™s norms and valuesâ€”and simplistic, politically correct judgmentalism. For example, it asserts at the outset that Western Europeans â€œprincipallyâ€ shaped colonial American settlements, but acknowledges that Native Americans and Africans also helped to create â€œa new and uniquely American culture in the 17th and 18th centuries.â€ This overall tone is extremely important. It suggests a retreat from the most tendentious flaw in the â€œmulticulturalâ€ history of the 1990sâ€”namely, that including the story of those previously excluded (minorities, women, etc.) often resulted in largely excluding the story of those previously included (famous dead white males). The NAEP Framework reflects a more judicious approach in which teachers and students are expected to know the stories of minorities and women in addition to those of Washington, Lincoln, and other luminaries.
By emphasizing context and complexity rather than judgments based on modern-day perspectives, the Framework should not only clarify what students actually know, but, at the same time, help students develop genuine historical understanding. The NAEP basic assumptions stress that students must understand the ambiguity and uncertainty of events in their full historical context. This, in turn, requires understanding the futility of criticizing people in the past for the absence of ideas, beliefs, and values which were embryonic or even nonexistent in their timeâ€”such as racial equality. The NAEP basic assumptions make clear that it is a waste of precious classroom time to self-righteously judge the past from the perspective of the early twenty-first century
Finally, while many history and social studies standards eschew chronology in favor of organizing historical content primarily by theme, the NAEP history framework asserts clearly that â€œbecause history is concerned with the experiences of people over time, it is critical to establish a basic chronological structure to organize it.â€ The eight chronological periods shown on page 17 unify the assessment and its historical content. By organizing essential content chronologically,
the NAEP framework underscores the importance of understanding how historical events unfolded and impacted one another without trying to force sometimes unrelated events into arbitrary boxes defined by narrow and ahistorical themes.
Within each of the eight chronological periods, content is presented via a series of defining questions organized around the four historical themes. These questions are clear, thoughtful, substantive, and balanced. For example:
- â€œHow did various European colonists reshape their political, legal, and philosophical traditions to fit their circumstances in North America? In the English colonies, what practices of self-government and laws developed?â€
- â€œWhat were the political debates regarding independence and the creation of new state governments and a national government?â€
- â€œWhat were the major conflicts between big business and labor? What was the role of the federal government in resolving such disputes?â€
- â€œHow did the Depression change assumptions about the nature of federalism and the role of the government?â€
- â€œWhat combination of ideology, economics, historical circumstances, individual viewpoints, and other factors shaped the history of the Cold War? What factors led to its end?â€
Unfortunately, the questions relating to the periods of U.S. history do not explicitly address grade-level differentiation. The sample questions just cited would surely be inappropriate at the fourth-grade level and in most cases at the eighth-grade level as well. In short, it would be helpful if the framework made clearer what level of knowledge and analytic prowess it is reasonable to expect at various grade levels, since the assessment questions will be administered and scored in grade-specific ways. However, the much smaller number of U.S. history questions included in the NAEP Sample Questions for assessment, published separately, do differentiate between levels of complexity in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades.
Content and Rigor Conclusion
The NAEP Framework emphasizes â€œknowing and understanding people, events…contexts, and historical sourcesâ€ as well as the importance of â€œmultiple perspectives and seeing an era or movement through the eyes of different groups.â€ The document also stresses â€œestablishing causeand-effect relationships,â€ â€œweighing evidence to draw sound conclusions,â€ and â€œmaking defensible generalizations.â€ The historical material, covered in only eighteen pages, is a strikingly rich and comprehensive body of U.S. history content that can usefully guide both test developers and those who opt to align their academic standards or curricula with the NAEP. Viewed as a whole, the NAEP Framework succeeds admirably in defining a core of literacy in U.S. history and earns a seven out of seven for Content and Rigor. (See Common Grading Metric, Appendix A.)
Clarity and Specificity Conclusion
The content in the NAEP Framework is presented as a set of questions; these questions, nonetheless, lay out a general but clear and remarkably specific description of the important historical knowledge and appropriate achievement-level expectations for students in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades. The framework could, arguably, delineate this historical content somewhat more consistently (with fewer gaps), but it nonetheless succeeds in â€œdelineating the knowledge and skills to be tested at each gradeâ€ (emphasis added). The framework earns a two out of three for Clarity and Specificity. (See Common Grading Metric, Appendix A.)
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