Our approach


In an era defined by endless calls for accountability, history teachers have few assessment options. Drawing on digital sources from the largest library in the world, Beyond the Bubble expands these options.

Our digital assessments:

  • Take only a few minutes and are easy to score
  • Come with rubrics and samples of student work
  • Promote academic literacy
  • Provide windows into students’ thinking

A Poverty of Imagination

An absence of creativity characterizes the testing industry. At one end of the spectrum are multiple-choice tests that rip facts out of context and penalize students for not knowing things they can instantly Google. At the other end are tasks like the  “document-based question" (DBQ) of the Advanced Placement exam, often considered the gold standard of history testing. The DBQ is a useful assessment if your students can already handle the analysis of eight to ten primary documents and write a college-level essay. Certainly a worthy goal. But what if your students can't yet read one document? How can you determine if they possess the skills they need to do college-level work?

Beyond the Bubble addresses this quandary. Many of our assessments can be completed in just a few minutes. Others take longer but still less time than an hour-long DBQ. Compared to blackened circles on a Scantron, short written responses provide a window to what students think – the very information you need to make adjustments in your teaching. We need formative assessments in the history classroom--assessments that allow us to make daily changes in our instruction--not just end-of-course tests. What good are assessments if they don't help us become better teachers?

What is Historical Thinking?

We call our exercises “History Assessments of Thinking,” or HATs. Each HAT asks students to go beyond factual recall to apply information in a specific historical context. Historical thinking is about cultivating habits of mind, ways of thinking that become habitual. Whether examining slave records in Brazil, studying the events leading up to the Homestead Strike, or poring over imperial records from Japan’s Meiji Restoration, historians think about when a source was produced, who wrote it, and for what purpose. A historian examining a map drawn by John Smith in 1608 wants to know: “What else was going on? Was the map created for the purpose of charting a route up the Chesapeake or to convince investors in England that their money was being well spent?"

Source: John Smith, A True Relation of Virginia, 1608.

A historian examining a photograph taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936 wants to know: "Was Lange's photo taken to dramatize the misery of the Dustbowl or to drum up support for Roosevelt’s social programs -- or both?”

Source: Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936.

Beyond the Bubble assessments focus on the following aspects of historical knowing:  

Evaluation of evidence involves the critical assessment of historical sources.  It includes the following:

  • Sourcing asks students to consider who wrote a document as well as the circumstances of its creation. Who authored a given document? When? For what purpose?
  • Contextualization asks students to locate a document in time and place, and to understand how these factors shape its content.
  • Corroboration asks students to consider details across multiple sources to determine points of agreement and disagreement.

Historical knowledge encompasses various ways of knowing about the past, including:

  • Historical information is the recognition and recall of important factual data. 
  • Significance requires students to evaluate the importance of people and events. 
  • Periodization asks students to group ideas and events by era. 
  • Narrative is deep knowledge of how the past unfolded over time.

Historical argumentation requires the articulation of historical claims and the use of evidence to support them.

Common Core State Standards

Our assessments closely align with the new Common Core State Standards. Each of our assessments is keyed to one or more standard and includes a link identifying the relevant standards. Some of the standards addressed include: 

  • #1 (Gr. 6-12): Evaluating the date and origin of evidence (sourcing)
  • #6 (Gr. 6-12): Corroborating across multiple points of view
  • #8 (Gr: 6-12): Evaluating trustworthiness of claims 

Our Process

Developing valid assessments is more complicated than writing a question and gathering students' responses. We followed a rigorous R & D process to ensure that our assessments are sound. We’ve discarded dozens of assessments that failed to survive our development process. 

Research and Development

Here are the steps we followed:

  1. Defined the “domain of performance” by drawing on the literature of historical thinking.
  2. Selected a document from the Library of Congress digital archive and constructed an assessment that measures historical knowing.
  3. Formulated a prototype of the assessment.
  4. Convened student focus groups and administered the assessments.
  5. Conducted "think-aloud" interviews, in which students talked aloud as they completed the assessment.  Think alouds track the cognitive processes students use to answer the assessment and ensure that the assessment taps historical thinking.
  6. Piloted the assessment with a larger sample.
  7. Based on multiple cycles of testing, made final revisions and built the interactive scoring rubric.

Assessment Design Principles

  • Good assessments balance knowledge of content and historical thinking.
  • Good assessments ask students to apply content knowledge rather than reproduce it. 
  • Good assessments ask students to consider content in ways that require thought, judgment, and deep understanding.