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Running Head: DBQ ASSESSMENTS

Generating Student Performance Data with Document-Based Question (DBQ) Assessments:
Results from Two Urban Schools
by
Scott M. Petri
Los Angeles Unified School District
Submitted for TSU International Conference on Teaching and Learning
December 13, 2013
Track 1: Learning /Teaching Methodologies & Assessment
Presentation: This presentation and paper will describe how educators can incorporate the
Common Core Standards for Writing into History-Social Science instruction with Documentbased Question Assessments (DBQs). This process will also generate new metrics and
evaluation techniques that can improve the study of student writing.
Format: Interactive multi-media with slides displaying data, audio clips of student perceptions,
video clips of student & teacher reflections, samples of student work, and an activity for
participants to evaluate an online peer-review rubric with their mobile devices.
Author Note:
Scott M. Petri, Ed. D.
scottmpetri@gmail.com

DBQ ASSESSMENTS
Abstract
This pilot was conducted at two PHABO secondary schools in Los Angeles. Both schools had
API scores in the lowest decile of public schools in the state of California. A series of Document
Based Question Assessments (DBQ’s) were administered to a sample of students from each
school (N=315). The resulting performance data, additional factors, and implications for
Common Core writing instruction in Social Studies suggest that educators will be successful in
implementing common core writing tasks if they are supported by instructional leaders who
explicitly teach writing scaffolds across the curriculum, endorse the use of peer review grading
policies and incorporate revision memos into the writing process, and allow teachers to
collaboratively develop, design, and assess document based question assessments into all social
studies subjects.

2

DBQ ASSESSMENTS
Generating Student Performance Data with Document-Based Question (DBQ) Assessments:
Results from Two Urban Schools
The Common Core State Standards call for teachers to emphasize argumentative and
informative writing into all subjects. Many teachers across the content areas are unsure how to
respond to these new standards. Should secondary social studies teachers stop delivery of subject
content to explicitly teach spelling, vocabulary, and sentence construction? Should professional
learning communities devote a specific amount of time to writing instruction in each subject?
How many writing projects should be delivered in each subject? Educators will struggle with
these questions over the next few years as they implement the Common Core writing and literacy
standards, however, this article will present a method for how teachers can implement the
Common Core Standards for writing into History-Social Science instruction immediately.
After a brief review of the literature on writing and formative assessments, it will report
the results of a pilot program that was conducted at two Predominantly Hispanic, Asian, Black
and Other (PHABO) secondary schools in California. Both schools had API scores in the lowest
decile of public schools in the state of California. A series of Document-Based Question (DBQ)
assessments were administered to a sample of 315 students at the two different high schools. The
resulting performance data and implications for Common Core writing instruction in Social
Studies will be discussed in this article.
Literature Review
Under Common Core, all teachers need to be writing teachers (Rothman, 2011). Social
Studies teachers can increase student literacy skills by incorporating document-based questions
as formal assessments. DBQ word production may be used as a goal setting strategy to help
communicate a key measure of student engagement to parents and students. In short, we can use

3

DBQ ASSESSMENTS
our students’ writing to show them where they are and use data from a national sample to show
them where they need to be.
There is concern that a majority of adolescents do not develop the competence in writing
they need to be successful in school, the workplace, or their personal lives (Graham & Perin,
2007). Blanton (1986) found English language learners (ELL) students often respond to each act
of writing as if it were a test, denying themselves space to practice with written language. ELL
students want to get it right the first time, a perception that often prevents them from becoming
proficient writers. Rogers & Graham (2008) found goal setting for productivity effective in a
meta-analysis of single subject writing interventions. Other researchers (Bissex & Bullock, 1987;
Calkins, 1994; Graves, 1983;) have noted a connection between increased reading and writing
and higher levels of academic achievement. Hence, Common Core and an increasing number of
assessments including the ACT, CRWA, and SAT employ writing-from-sources tasks that
integrate reading and writing.
De La Paz (2005) compared 8th-grade students (N=70) in an integrated social studies and
language arts unit designed to promote historical understanding and argumentative writing to a
control group of students (N=62) who did not receive writing intervention or instruction. Results
indicated the students who demonstrated mastery of the target strategies during instruction wrote
historically more accurate and more persuasive essays regardless of their initial learning profile.
Similarly, De La Paz & Felton (2010) compared 11th grade students who learned a prewriting strategy (N=81) for composing argumentative essays related to historical events to a
control group (N=79) that read the same primary and secondary source document sets. They
found that the essays written by students who received pre-writing instruction were longer, were
rated as having significantly greater historical accuracy, were significantly more persuasive, and

4

DBQ ASSESSMENTS
claims and rebuttals within each argument became more elaborated. The word count for the prewriting instruction group increased from 195.32 to 327.86 on average, an increase of 132.54
words. Yet for the control group, word production only increased by 14.45 words.
This research suggests that writing instruction that is focused on goal setting strategies,
argumentative claims and rebuttals, and historical accuracy may be effective when introducing
common core writing tasks to students. Hence, instructional leaders should encourage teachers
to design, develop, and analyze DBQs as formative assessments in common planning time, or
department professional development.
Complex writing assignments, or DBQs, are essential for improving adolescent literacy
(Fisher & Frey, 2007). DBQ units align with plans for increasing writing proficiency, critical
thinking, and creating a college-going culture. DBQ’s can be designed to give students a preview
of Advanced Placement curriculum. Increased use of DBQs should lead to greater English
proficiency and help students avoid costly and demoralizing remedial coursework that has an
adverse effect on college completion rates. DBQs should be jointly developed and graded by
History and English teachers to ensure that students will meet the new Common Core standards
for Writing. Students may be more motivated when they get credit in both classes for the same
assignment. This credit can be given in multiple stages for planning, writing, and revising
DBQs.
The College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards in Writing (See Figs. 1 & 2)
demand that students are able to write arguments on discipline-specific content, developing
claims and counterclaims, while establishing a formal tone and objective style citation. Using
controversial, or debatable content, teaching students to write in the third person, and using their
historical content knowledge to “qualify them as an expert” may provide motivation when

5

ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS & LITERACY IN HISTORY/SOCIAL STUDIES, SCIENCE, AND TECHNICAL SUBJECTS

DBQ ASSESSMENTS

COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS FOR ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS & LITERACY IN HISTORY/SOCIAL STUDIES, SCIENCE, AND TECH

r Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6–12

WHST

type of writing.
e 6; standards for teaching
K–5 writingthis
in history/social
studies, science, and technical subjects are integrated into the K–5 Writing

rds and high school standards in literacy work in tandem to define college and career readiness expectations—the former
Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science,
er providing additional specificity.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Grades
students:
Grades
9–106–8
students:

ents:

and Technical S

Grades
9–10
students:
Grades
11–12
students:

Grade

Text Types and Purposes (continued)

scipline-specific

1.

topic or issue,
sh the claim(s) from
s, and organize the
ally.
al reasoning and
evidence that
ing of the topic or

3.

(See note; not applicable as a separate
requirement)

2.
Write informative/explanatory texts, including
Write
arguments focused on discipline-specific
the narration of historical events, scientific
content.
procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.
a. Introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s),
a. Introduce a topic and organize ideas,
establish the significance of the claim(s),
concepts, and information to make important
distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or
connections and distinctions; include
opposing
claims, and create an organization
formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g.,
thatfigures,
logically
sequences
the claim(s),
tables),
and multimedia
when useful to
counterclaims,
reasons, and evidence.
aiding comprehension.

2.

Write informativ
the narration of
procedures/ exp
a. Introduce a
concepts, an
element buil
create a unifi
(e.g., headin
tables), and
comprehens
b. Develop the
most signific
definitions, c
other inform
the audience
c. Use varied t
to link the m
cohesion, an
complex ide
d. Use precise
vocabulary a
simile, and a
of the topic;
in a style tha
context as w
readers.
e. Provide a co
that follows
or explanatio
implications

3.

3.

(See note; not a
requirement)

b. Develop
claim(s)
and with
counterclaims
fairly
and
b. Develop
the topic
well-chosen,
relevant,
thoroughly,
supplying
most relevant
data
and sufficient
facts,the
extended
definitions,
andconcrete
evidencedetails,
for each
while pointing
out the
quotations,
or other
strengths
and limitations
of both
claim(s)to
and
information
and examples
appropriate
the
counterclaims
in a discipline-appropriate
form
audience’s knowledge
of the topic.
that
anticipates
the audience’s
knowledge
c. Use
varied transitions
and sentence
structures
level,
values,
and possible
biases.
toconcerns,
link the major
sections
of the text,
create
c. Usecohesion,
words, phrases,
andthe
clauses
as well as
and clarify
relationships
among
varied
syntax
to link the major sections of
ideas
and concepts.
the
text,precise
create language
cohesion,and
anddomain-specific
clarify the
d. Use
relationships
between
claim(s)
and reasons,
vocabulary
to manage
the complexity
of
between
reasons
and evidence,
and between
the topic
and convey
a style appropriate
to
claim(s)
and counterclaims.
the discipline
and context as well as to the
expertise
likely readers.
d. Establish
andof
maintain
a formal style and
objective
tone
while
attending
to the
norms
e. Establish
and
maintain
a formal
style
and
andobjective
conventions
the discipline
they
toneof
while
attending in
to which
the norms
are and
writing.
conventions of the discipline in which they
are writing.
e. Provide
a concluding statement or section
f. Provide
concluding
statement
or section
that
followsafrom
or supports
the argument
that follows from and supports the information
presented.
or explanation presented (e.g., articulating
implications or the significance of the topic).
(See note; not applicable as a separate
requirement)

Developing the Pilot Program
Note:

Students’ narrative skills continue to grow in these grades. The Standards require that students be able to incorporate na

In order
to strengthen
social studies texts.
teachers’
abilitiesstudies,
to support
across
the
arguments
and informative/explanatory
In history/social
studentswriting
must be able
to incorporate
narrative ac

individuals or events of historical import. In science and technical subjects, students must be able to write precise enoug
procedures they use in their investigations or technical work that others can replicate them and (possibly) reach the sam

curriculum, several professional development seminars were developed to implement a
Document Based Questions (DBQ) assessment program. Teachers were skeptical about

assigning more frequent writing tasks and creating more work for themselves. To address these

65

|

6-12 | HISTORY/SOCIAL STUDIES, SCIENCE, AND TECHNICAL SUBJECTS | WRITING

uses to create
ationships among
sons, and evidence.
mal style.
ment or section
orts the argument

2.
Write informative/explanatory texts, including
Write
arguments focused on discipline-specific
1.
the narration of historical events, scientific
content.
procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.
a. Introduce precise claim(s), distinguish the
a. Introduce a topic clearly, previewing what
claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims,
is to follow; organize ideas, concepts, and
and create an organization that establishes
information into broader categories as
clear appropriate
relationshipstoamong
the claim(s),
achieving purpose; include
counterclaims,
and evidence.
formattingreasons,
(e.g., headings),
graphics (e.g.,
b. Develop
claim(s)
and
counterclaims
fairly,useful to
charts,
tables),
and
multimedia when
supplying
and evidence for each while
aidingdata
comprehension.
pointing
out the
limitations
b. Develop
thestrengths
topic withand
relevant,
well-chosen
of both
claim(s)
and counterclaims
in aquotations,
facts,
definitions,
concrete details,
discipline-appropriate
form
and
in a manner
or other information
and
examples.
that
anticipates
the
audience’s
knowledge
c. Use appropriate and varied transitions to
level and
concerns.
create
cohesion and clarify the relationships
c. Use words,
and
clauses to link the
amongphrases,
ideas and
concepts.
major
sections
oflanguage
the text, and
create
cohesion,
d. Use
precise
domain-specific
and clarify
the relationships
between
claim(s)
vocabulary
to inform about
or explain
the
and reasons,
topic. between reasons and evidence,
and between claim(s) and counterclaims.
e. Establish and maintain a formal style and
d. Establish
and maintain
a formal style and
objective
tone.
objective
tone
attending
to theor
norms
f. Provide
a while
concluding
statement
section that
and conventions
thesupports
discipline
which theyor
follows fromof
and
theininformation
are writing.
explanation presented.
e. Provide a concluding statement or section
that follows from or supports the argument
presented.

concerns, revision memos and peer review rubrics were employed, so that teacher workloads
would not significantly increase. Mean word counts were charted for each class period. Essays
were skimmed by teachers to make sure students were on topic. After administering five DBQs,
students significantly increased their word production (See Figs. 3 & 4). Student performance

6

DBQ ASSESSMENTS
was charted for each writing task so parents could see where their student performed in relation
to their peers (See Fig 5). At the conclusion of this exercise, all of the teachers agreed to
implement DBQs into their classroom assessment practices the following semester.
Figure 3
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• The word production generated by this
cohort of students ranged from a low of
14 words per hour to a high of 617
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• The median was 163 words per hour
and the cohort mean was 186 words per
hour.
• This level of production was 224 words
per hour below the national mean.

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• These results indicate that students need
additional practice in word production,
if they are to increase their writing
proficiency.

Cohort I
Tracking the number of words written by students per hour began as a goal setting
exercise. A cohort of 105 students were given a World War I writing task that was also
completed by a sample of tenth grade students from across the United States. An analysis of the
student essays in the DBQ Project curriculum (2010) suggested that the average tenth grader
could write 410 words in 60 minutes. In comparison, the most productive class in this cohort
produced an average of 265 words in 60 minutes. Other sections produced averages between
118-219 words per hour. This process informed as students as to what levels of effort would be
expected for subsequent writing tasks (See Fig. 6). Word production levels increased by 156
words per hour, after five DBQs were administered. This suggested that DBQ assessments offer
an advantage over standardized tests, which cannot measure student effort.

7

DBQ ASSESSMENTS
Tenth grade World History students were given a series of complex writing tasks or
DBQs. In order to measure student effort, words produced in a 60 minute time period were
counted and analyzed on a per class basis. The results from the final writing task were compared
to the totals from the first writing task to determine how much student effort improved. It is
important to note that there were a total of 106 members of the tenth grade cohort, but only 73
writing tasks were completed on the first and last administrations of in-class DBQs. Student
absences were problematic and student motivation tended to be low, particularly during complex
writing tasks. DBQ teachers may reverse these factors by constantly displaying student effort
data in class, scaffolding pre-writing organizational tasks, and by increasing the number of DBQ
assessments given each semester.
Figure 4

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• By May 2012, the word production
generated by this cohort of students had
increased to a low of 76 words per hour
and a high of 990 words per hour.
• The median was 315 words per hour
and the cohort mean was 342 words per
hour.

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• This level of production was 68 words
per hour below the national mean.
• These results indicate that additional
practice has benefitted students and
further practice could lift word
production levels over the national
mean.

Complicating Factors
At the end of the Spring 2012 semester, 105 students completed the class with 29 of these
students failing, yielding a course pass rate of 72% and a course failure rate of 28%. These
students had an average of 9.69 absences and 7.87 tardies. Assuming a loss of 82 minutes for

8

DBQ ASSESSMENTS
each class period and 15 minutes lost due to each tardy, this resulted in the loss of over 912
minutes, or 15 hours of instruction in Social Studies.
Cohort II
This study was replicated at a second high school location with a larger cohort of 216
students, 121 were enrolled in 10th grade World History, and 95 were enrolled in 11th grade US
History. Word production was tracked for three DBQ assignments. The remaining DBQs were
peer graded by students using rubrics designed for evaluating thesis statements and use of textual
evidence. Students who demonstrated increases in word production were given bonus points in
addition to the points awarded for the assignment. Also, students were able to submit revisions
of their DBQ essays for extra-credit during the semester.
Figure 5

Figure 6

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The second cohort of 216 students had a mean GPA of 1.95 and a mean course grade of
1.74 on a standard four point scale. Better attendance patterns were noted with Cohort II. At the
end of the Spring 2013 semester, 210 students finished their classes with 55 of these students
failing, yielding a course pass rate of 74% and a course failure rate of 26%. These students had
an average of 7.06 absences and 0.84 tardies. Assuming a loss of 90 minutes for each class

9

DBQ ASSESSMENTS
period and 15 minutes lost due to each tardy, this resulted in the loss of approximately 648
minutes, or 11 hours of instruction in Social Studies. See (Figs. 7 & 8) for a comparison of the
final grades from both cohorts.
Conclusion
This article has described a Common Core writing instruction program that requires the
students to work harder than the teachers. The teacher delivers controversial social studies
content from multiple sources to students. The teacher demonstrates strategies for detecting bias,
evaluating rhetoric, and determining validity in a series of texts. The students then write an
argument in response to a complex question, where there is no correct answer. They utilize
sections of the texts to strengthen the claims in their argument. Then, the student writing is
assessed by an elbow partner. By utilizing peer-reviewed feedback, teachers are free to use their
instruction time encourage student debate and discussion on the topic, to demonstrate pre-writing
strategies, and to provide examples of effective student writing.
Figure 7

Figure 8

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The increased rigor and writing demands of this program may cause students with low
writing skills to lose motivation. Thus, teachers should experiment with pedagogical methods

10

DBQ ASSESSMENTS
that increase student engagement, lower tardy and absence rates, and increase student literacy
skills. DBQ instruction may boost student literacy rates and student achievement overall,
however, unless carefully scaffolded, this may result in increased number of incomplete
assignments and increased course failure rates, particularly among male students (See Figs. 9 &
10). Additional research may shed light on how to ameliorate this problem.
Figure 9

Figure 10
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O’Toole (2013) suggests that peer review can be a powerfully instructive experience, but
that progression in peer assessment should be structured, with a learning design that includes
“phases of activity, peer assessment, reviewing and reflecting upon the assessor’s assessment,
learning to be a better assessor, further activity and further assessment” (p. 5). Brookhart (2013)
has conducted extensive research on formative assessment and grading and using studentgenerated rubrics to allow for highly effective peer grading systems. Bardine and Fulton (2008)
provide further guidance in using revision memos to have students explicitly address weaknesses
in drafts and developing confidence in academic writing. Teachers interested in adding
Document-Based Questions into their pedagogy should investigate resources at AP Central, The
DBQ Project, and Walch Publishing.

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DBQ ASSESSMENTS
References
Bardine, B., & Fulton, A. (2008). Analyzing the benefits of revision memos during the writing
and revision process. The Clearing House, 81(4), 149-154.
Bissex, G. L., & Bullock, R. (1987). Seeing for ourselves: Case-study research by teachers of
writing. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.
Blanton, L.L. (1986). Reshaping ESL students’ perceptions of writing. ELT Journal. 41(2), 112118. DOI: 10.1093/elt/41.2.112
Brookhart, S. M. (2013). How to create and use rubrics for formative assessment and grading.
Teacher Librarian, 40(4), 52.
Calkins, L. (1994). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.
De La Paz, S. (2005). Effects of historical reasoning instruction and writing strategy mastery in
culturally and academically diverse middle school classrooms. Journal of Educational
Psychology, 97(2), 139-156.
De La Paz, S., & Felton, M. (2010). Reading and writing from multiple source documents in
history: Effects of strategy instruction with low to average high school writers. Journal of
Contemporary Educational Psychology, 35, 174-192.
Graves, D. (1983). Writing: Teachers and children at work. Exeter, N.H.: Heinemann
Educational Books.
Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of
adolescents in middle and high schools - A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

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DBQ ASSESSMENTS
Grant, S. G., Gradwell, J. M., & Cimbricz, S. K. (2004). A question of authenticity: The
document-based question as an assessment of students’ knowledge of history. Journal of
Curriculum and Supervision, 19, 309-337.
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2007). Checking for understanding: Formative assessment techniques for
your classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum
Development.
O'Toole, R. (2013) Pedagogical strategies and technologies for peer assessment in Massively
Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Discussion Paper. University of Warwick, Coventry,
UK: University of Warwick. (Unpublished)
Rogers, L., & Graham, S. (2008). A meta-analysis of single subject design writing intervention
research. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(4), 879-906.
Rothman, R. (2011). Something in common: The common core standards and the next chapter in
American education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Publishing.

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Author Bio
Scott Petri has worked as a social studies teacher since 2003; five of those years in
middle school and five in high school. He has served as a teacher, coordinator, and small school
principal in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political
Science from the University of San Diego, a M. A. in Education Administration, and a Doctorate
in Educational Leadership from California State University Northridge, where he developed an
Entrepreneurial Orientation instrument for educators that evaluated 729 California charter,
private, and traditional public school teachers along domains of innovativeness, proactiveness,
and risk taking.

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