03/2012

Understanding State History Standards

As we noted in the report, implementation, structure, wording and assessment vary widely among state social studies content requirements. These differences cut across grade levels and historical eras, although most states tend to have less detailed requirements for the post-World War II era. 

Despite their differences, most state standards share two major similarities. First, most identify content successful students will master. States accompany these content specifications with examples, learning indicators, tasks and other benchmarks for teaching and assessment. For example, Virginia’s U.S. history standards specify essential understandings, questions and knowledge, delving into considerable detail about selected events or issues like the Voting Rights Act of 1965. New York’s standards specify content as well as “connections” to tasks, examples or other historical periods. 

Second, most state standards adhere to the conventions established in Benjamin Bloom’s 1956 mapping of the cognitive domain. Some require purely informational skills, others require students to take a more sophisticated approach: students must explain, understand or analyze. Still others begin with even more cognitively complex tasks such as comparing, evaluating, or assessing. A final category includes a performance expectation: students may be asked to develop and defend a position or cite and critically analyze evidence of a disputed phenomenon or causal relationship. In theory, as students get older they should learn to perform increasingly complex tasks while covering additional content. 

Even though they share these structural elements, state standards are far more different than they are similar. The model standards in this report demonstrate how disparate content can be modified and improved within familiar structures to create effective standards for teaching the civil rights movement. We offer four sets so that states can find the structure and expectations that work best for them.