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When I started teaching I made tests at the end of a unit. After teaching for several years, I realized it was better to make an assessment before I started designing or teaching a unit. Creating the unit test first meant I had identified key content knowledge and skills for the unit, ensuring I would make a thoughtful sequence of lessons with the final test in mind. 

I learned a few other lessons about assessment along the way. I found out it is good practice to give formative assessments, sometimes called diagnostic assessments or pre-tests, in the first few weeks of school.  Moreover, when making objective tests on social science content knowledge, assess a variety of student skills, too.  In addition to traditional multiple choice tests, assess writing and performance based projects, as well. And don’t just give summative assessments, quiz students during a unit to keep track of how well they understand the material. Remember, “practice makes perfect,” so do lots of review before an exam. To my way of thinking, well designed assessments should accurately measure student content knowledge in one moment, as well as skill growth over time. 

Diagnostic Tests and Formative Assessments

As teachers, we use lots of informal methods to learn what our student know and don’t know. During the year, a quick scan of a homework assignment, a quiz, or a student’s quizzical look tells us when students need more instruction or practice. I’ve found there is also a valuable role for formal diagnostic tests or formative assessments at the beginning of the year to evaluate our students’ skills and content knowledge.   

There are different philosophies about formative assessments. One strategy is to administer a pre-test at the beginning of the year, giving the identical test questions at the end of a course. For example, our Senior Social Studies Team identified the core content knowledge that we hoped our students would know by the end of the year. We designed a US Government Formative Assessment with 25 questions. The average student score on the formative assessment was 52%. An item analysis of our pre-test results identified the most difficult topics for our  students, including: adding Amendments to the US Constitution, the differences between the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the concept of federalism. Our team dug into designing lessons, emphasizing these aspects of US government. For the final exam, we gave students the identical questions and were pleased to see much improved test results.

A second approach to formative assessment is gauging skills. Several of us identified key political literacy competencies including: reading news articles and analyzing charts, infographics, electoral college maps, and political cartoons.  We designed a US Government - Formative Reading Skills Assessment. The assessment results guided our skill instruction. At the end of the semester we did not give students the same test questions. Rather, we created a Final Exam Reading Section, which mirrored the types of questions on the Formative Reading Skills Assessment, including charts, political cartoons and the like. 

Whether you favor content or skill based formative assessments or use identical or mirrored questions, you’ll get a lot of important information from a pre-test to guide your instruction. In addition, no matter which type of formative assessment you use, it is important to let students know that they will not be graded on this diagnostic test. We never want to grade students on material we haven’t taught. 

Content and Skills Based Tests

I like both content and skill based tests, and most of my social studies unit tests have both types of questions. To help our students better grasp the content we teach, they’ve got to improve their skills. We need to teach these skills, whether it is reading a non-fiction article or reading a map, interpreting a graph or a political cartoon. And if we teach these skills, we should adhere to the old adage, “Test what you teach.”

For this reason, many of the units tests I designed assessed a variety of social science skills.  For example, the Unit Test on the Westward Movement, Industrialization, Immigration and the Progressiver Era 1865-1914 included an excerpt on the impact of railroads on Native Americans,  a photo of child labor and New York tenements, a graph of US industrialization, and political cartoons on immigration and Teddy Roosevelt. It is not hard looking at this unit test to imagine the content I taught, along with the skills that we practiced. 

Writing Assessments

Objective multiple choice tests are one way to test what students know. Another important way to measure what kids learned is to create a writing assessment. These can be short-answer essay questions, timed in-class essays, or longer pieces of informational and argumentative writing. I like to walk before I run when it comes to writing assessments. So, in my US History class I typically begin with short answer identification quizzes. I start by showing them a model, like this one on the child labor prompt, "Why did some US observers refer to workers during the industrial revolution as “wage slaves,” and to child labor as  “child slavery?” The next day students had a short answer essay quiz on Industrialization. In addition, my Semester 1 US History Final Exam included a variety of short answer essay questions, along with the objective portion of the test. 

In addition to short answer essays, each of my courses included longer writing assessments. The sophomore year we focused on informational writing, juniors did a lot of argumentative writing, and seniors each were required to do a research paper. It’s a good idea to give your students  formative writing assessments for these types of writing. Pre-tests can range from a quick writing sample on a course topic to an in-class essay using multiple sources. For example, in the section on Writing in this website, I shared the formative writing assessment on the rise of democracy I did with my World Studies sophomores and the informational writing rubric I used to evaluate my students’ first attempts. Like any formative assessment, this one helped form my writing instruction throughout the year. 

I’ve shared several summative writing assignments in the Writing section of this website, as well, including a World Studies essay on the Industrial Revolution and a Senior research paper.  The first was graded using an informational writing rubric and the second with an argumentative essay rubric

Remember, if you are going to test writing, you’ve got to teach it too. Objective tests take some time to make, but are quick to grade. Writing assessments are the opposite; they can be made more quickly, but they take much longer to grade. As you plan your year, make room for both types of assessments. Your students will be the better for it. 

Authentic Assessment Projects

There is a third type of assessment which will add interest and enthusiasm to your classes: performance based authentic assessments. These can be slideshows, infographics, video, art, student performances or web based oral history projects. They are the most fun because they give kids a chance to show what they know. 

One of the great joys of teaching in the Information Age is watching students dig into computer based social science projects. The Internet, along with the explosion of digital mediums for photos, video, music, and art, provide students with an array of tools. For example, in the World Studies Imperialism and Independence Slideshow project my sophomores picked one country from Asia, Africa, or Latin America that suffered under European or US imperialism. In addition to their textbook, they used an online database Gale for research and Google Slides to make their slideshows. My US History students became historians themselves, through a series of oral history projects published on the Web. In the History Close to Home, Union City’s New Americans, and Journeys projects my students interviewed family and community members, documenting and publishing their stories. In addition, my seniors created a community history website, Union City Turns 50.  It included a variety of digital student entries including video, photos, and photo collage about the local area.  Each of these projects were graded on a rubric. You can read more about these authentic assessment projects and others on the Projects webpage on this site. 

"Practice Makes Perfect”

Whatever types of assessments you choose, objective tests, writing, or performance based authentic assessments, be sure to give kids lots of practice before the summative exam. Quizzing students on smaller chunks of information in a unit is very helpful. In addition, there are a variety of review activities enhanced with the Internet. Before the computer, many of us made Jeopardy-like review games by placing questions and answers on a large poster board. It was a time-consuming endeavor, but kids loved the competition and I liked being able to give students a chance to review the types of questions before they took my test the next day. Enter the Internet. Review games are now easy to make on websites like For example, I used a template to design my Quiz Show Review on Macroeconomics.  Just as before, we’d play the game whole class or sometimes I’d have students review in partners in what I dubbed a Jeopardy Duel. Or However, the web-based review had one big advantage, I could put the link for the game on my website and students could play the game as many times as they needed to review on their own time before the test. 

In addition, if you have a room full of students with Smartphones you can provide lively test review competitions with websites like You design the questions on the Kahoot website and students to use their phones to answer review questions that are projected in front of the class. It keeps track of right and wrong answers. The kids liked the competition. I liked that it gave me a quick sense of the what students knew and what I needed to review.   

Measuring Growth With Assessments

Soon after I became a teacher, computer based grading programs emerged, helping teachers with grading calculations. More recently, schools have moved beyond individual grading programs to web based assessment tools like Illuminate. These tools allow teachers to give tests with scan sheets or have students take exams on the computer. Either way, once student results are in the web program they give teachers a huge amount of information about their students including: class averages, commonly missed questions, and individual student’s content mastery and skill growth over time. In addition, at our high school teams of social studies teachers can now can give common assessments, comparing data and student growth throughout the year, and modifying instruction accordingly. 

Our job is to create high quality assessments, ones which accurately measure what we taught and what our students learned. I favor different types of assessments, ones which test skill growth along with content mastery. For many students testing is a stressful experience. You can minimize this anxiety if students feel your tests are fair because you test what you teach.  They will appreciate if you’ve worked hard teaching and reviewing, setting them up for success. Most importantly, students will feel a sense of accomplishment as they master material, improving their academic skills in the process.


Formative Content Assessment - Government


Formative Reading Skills Assessment - Government

Summative Reading Skill Questions - Government

Unit Test Combining Content and Skill Questions - US  Industrialization

Writing Assessments -  Short Answer Essay on Industrialization

Writing Assessments -  Semester 1 Final US History - Short Answer Essay

Writing Assessments -  Semester 1 Final US History - Short Answer Essay

Informational Writing Rubric

Writing Assessments -  Informational Essay on Industrial Revolution

Senior Research Paper -  Government and Economics

Argumentative Writing Rubric

Authentic Assessment Projects  

Database - Gale

  • Gale Subscription Database, Cenegage Company,

Web based Review Games 

  • “Easily Turn a Google™ Spreadsheet into a Set of Online Flashcards and Other Cool Stuff.” Easily Turn Google Spreadsheets into Flashcards and Other Cool Stuff,
  • Quiz Show Review on Macroeconomics Forrest -Flippity Net Review Game 
  • Jeopardy Duel - Forrest handout pdf
  • “Learning Games | Make Learning Awesome!” Kahoot!, 21 Sept. 2018,

Web Based Assessment Tools

“The Education Intelligence Platform.” Illuminate Education,

© Dave Forrest- 2018