NAEP 12th Grade World History Assessment: Issues and Options
In one form or another, courses in world history seem to be the fastest growing segment of the American school curriculum. Over the past twenty years almost every state has added world history related content to its curriculum guides at some grade level and in some form. Many states now require students to earn credit in a world history course to graduate from high school, while some test world history on state assessments. Perhaps the most dramatic indicator of world history’s popularity has been the development and growth of College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) World History course. Tested in the spring of 2002 with the largest first-time subscription in College Board’s history, the AP World History test has increased significantly with each subsequent assessment. Beyond its growing presence in the curriculum, world history is acquiring added legitimacy with endorsements of reform commissions and educational commentators, typically calling for adding at least one year of world history—variously defined—to the high school curriculum. The decision in the early 1990s to give world history co-equal status with United States history in the National History Standards added to its prestige, but also stirred controversy. To be sure, there are many dissenting voices, raising serious and legitimate concerns about the educational and historical quality, purpose and direction of world history courses. Yet the curricular growth of this subject at state and district levels makes world history a logical and valuable addition to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). On the surface, this appears to be a sensible and essentially unproblematic decision.
However, in creating a common framework for a 12th grade NAEP in world history the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) faces two issues that challenge this enterprise. First, in trying to fit (or often add) world history standards, content or courses into social studies curriculum, many states spread world history throughout and across the grades. Thus, students often come upon world history content during their middle school years or in the 9th and 10th grades. One set of issues, therefore, involves assessing 12th grade students on content they had in the 9th or 10th grades—or even earlier.
A second challenge—maybe even greater for developing a common national assessment—involves the variation in the type of world history that U.S. students encounter in their schools. Indeed, the key phrases in my opening paragraph were the conditionals that accompanied my description of world history’s popularity—“in some form or another” or “some type” or “variously defined.” In short, states and local school districts use the world history label to describe curricular practices with different structures, goals, historical approaches, periodization schemes, and content. Such diversity combined with NAGB’s charge to assess what is being taught across the nation rather than determining curriculum presents another serious challenge to creating a 12th grade NAEP world history exam.
In this paper I present a snapshot of world history education to illuminate the challenges NAGB faces in creating a NAEP world history framework. Using state standards documents, statutes concerning high school graduation, results from the NAEP transcript studies, and materials on the AP World History exam, I will begin with a brief overview of the expansion of world history in the schools. In the next section, I describe what I see as the four distinctive patterns to world history education as reflected in state standards documents and AP World History curriculum. Finally, I discuss a few options for developing a NAEP world history framework and the possible consequences of each.