Making and Measuring the California History Standards: The Story of California's History-Social Science Framework, Standards, and Tests Sheds Light on How and Why Education Reforms Evolve and Change, at Times Become Inconsistent, and Often Produce Unintended Consequences

Article excerpt

The nation is once again rushing to establish new and improved academic standards. However, unresolved issues remain from the previous wave of standards reform in the 1980s and 1990s. In particular, the California standards-based reforms for history-social science over the past 25 years should provide a cautionary tale for those advocating new standards-based reforms.

California has three primary documents for history education: The History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools, published in 1988 and revised significantly for the first time in 2009; the History-Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools, developed between November 1997 and October 1998; and the California Standards Tests for History-Social Science, first fully implemented in 2003.

The California Department of Education intends for the framework, standards, and tests to work in concert and promote the teaching and learning of history-social science. The standards define the content and skills that all students should learn. The framework provides guidance for educators to implement the standards. The tests generate information about student achievement and hold schools accountable for implementing the standards.

These documents established California as a leader in standards-based reforms for history education. Such organizations as the Fordham Foundation, Achieve Inc., and the American Federation of Teachers have continually awarded the framework and standards high marks and ratings. The Fordham report (Finn and Petrilli 2000) refers to them as the "gold standard" for state history curricula. The California Standards Tests, administered at the end of 8th, 10th, and 11th grades, constitute one of the nation's most extensive testing regimes for history-social science.

Unfortunately, instead of working together symbiotically to promote history education, these documents present educators with inconsistent--even antagonistic--content, strategies, and tools to teach and assess history-social science.


Between 2008 and 2009, I conducted a comparative case study of the California framework, standards, and tests. I collected detailed accounts of the policy making processes that created these influential curriculum and assessment documents. Drawing on interviews, minutes, and transcripts from meetings and public hearings, memos, sample test questions, technical reports, and various draft documents, I explored the political, institutional, and historical factors that shaped decision making. I wanted to focus on the goals and assumptions that policy makers used to frame the issues, problems, and solutions. I then compared the California case to others to compare the objectives and content of each. What follows are some highlights from this work.


In January 2008, the California Department of Education began revising the History-Social Science Framework. This was the first major revision of the framework since 1987. In 1987, the framework was California's primary document for history education. It featured narrative course descriptions of grade-level content to help align state textbooks, assessments, and instructional materials. In 2001, the department integrated the standards into the framework without fully revising the framework's course descriptions. The primary objectives of the latest adaptation were to align the framework with the standards; to develop new chapters on assessment, instructional strategies, and universal access; and to update course descriptions with current historiography.

Between February and June 2009, the 20-member Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Committee (CFCC), working in conjunction with the California Subject Matter Project--which won the contract to write the new framework--and the California Department of Education, drafted a new framework. This was a relatively harmonious process because members of the CFCC and writers from the subject-matter project were primarily history educators--teachers, administrators, and academics--with similar political and pedagogical views. …