Essay form studied for N.C. history test

staff writerNovember 4, 2010 

A change in the state's big high school history test might come along with a new required course.

The state Department of Public Instruction is recommending that students write an essay rather than fill in bubble sheets for the end-of-course U.S. history test. For years, teachers and parents have criticized the multiple-choice test for focusing on trivia.

The new idea for a testing format comes with the recommendation that social studies instruction include two U.S. history courses in high school. Minimum credits required for a diploma would increase from 21 to 22. The board is expected to vote on the social studies standards next month.

Rebecca Garland, DPI's chief academic officer, suggested a "documents-based" exam, in which students would be tested on their knowledge of the Federalist Papers, the Bill of Rights or other founding documents in a question that would have students apply the concepts to a 21st century question.

"We have been accused of having a test that is more 'Jeopardy'-like than conceptual," she said.

The state could begin the essay test in 2012.

State teachers would be asked to grade exams of students outside their districts. If the department eliminates the need for teachers to travel by using an electronic means of getting them the essays, the scoring could be done at low cost, Garland said.

The current high school U.S. history course, which covers from 1789 to the present, must move so quickly that it is difficult to examine topics in depth, said Michael D. Smith, a history teacher at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in Forest City.

Pausing for close study of an issue puts classes at risk of not getting to all the information that will appear on the state test, he said.

An essay test "would increase rigor," Smith said. "If thematically based, it would allow students to demonstrate a much more in-depth mastery of the material. It would require them not only to recite facts, but to interpret those facts, substantiating their arguments with concrete evidence."

This is the state's second shot at rewriting social studies standards. An outcry forced the board to reconsider limiting the high school history course to the years after Reconstruction. The proposal received national attention after a report by Fox News.

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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