Testing Times: Teaching history, social science creates informed citizenry

The following op ed piece was written by 17 Virginia professors may be viewed in the Richmond Times Dispatch on-line newspaper.

Testing Times: Teaching history, social science creates informed citizenry

In a 1789 letter to Richard Price, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.” Mr. Jefferson might be shocked if he had a child in fifth grade in a Virginia public school last year. There is no Standards of Learning (SOL) exam for history and social science (social studies) in fifth grade, and some divisions discourage instruction in the subject. It seems that only what gets tested gets taught. See Study of Allocated Social Studies Time in Elementary Classrooms in Virginia: 1987-2009 by Gail McEachron.

The lack of attention paid to subjects such as social studies in school years when it is not tested has been a problem for a while. This fall, however, anxiety over how testing affects schools’ instructional priorities is likely to increase. A law passed by the General Assembly in 2014, HB930, eliminates four history and social science SOL tests in elementary and middle school. We are concerned that an unintended consequence of this law will be diminished time and effort to teach these subjects in those grades in which the SOL tests have been eliminated.

As teacher educators and researchers in the field of history and social science education, we strongly support the maintenance of the time spent on social-studies teaching and learning in all grades, including those grades that do not have an SOL exam at the end of the year. Abandoning the teaching of history and social studies in those years is myopic and harmful to the academic strength of our children and to the strength of our democracy.

We encourage school divisions to replace the abandoned SOL exams with performance assessments that measure what students know and are able to do. Our research indicates such a move is likely to enhance instruction and increase academic rigor. Many districts are doing this in creative and constructive ways, but others are floundering without clear expectations or technical assistance from the state.

We applaud state legislators for responding to the legitimate concerns of constituents about the amount of testing that their children face. We agree the current assessment system is time-consuming, costly and unlikely to enhance instruction. The multiple-choice-test-driven pedagogy that has been encouraged by the SOLs has not fostered the literacy and thinking skills our children need. We support the intent of the law to shift away from multiple-choice toward locally designed authentic measures of achievement. We are hopeful these can encourage more engaging classrooms.

No Child Left Behind remains the law, however, and administrators will be pressured to focus solely on improving test scores in math and English language arts. In this context, administrators are encouraged to reduce instruction in history and social science to increase instruction in the tested subjects. If divisions choose to diminish the amount of time dedicated to teaching history and social science, the mission of public schools to educate young people for the responsibilities of citizenship will be jeopardized.

Without these, the intellectual skills of citizenship, how will young people be prepared to address the challenges their generation will face? How will they learn the values of freedom, tolerance and equality if they have not, from an early age, investigated their history and the history of others? How will they learn to deliberate about current issues if they have never learned how to do so in school?

These days, the U.S. Congress is less popular than a root canal. The public grows weary of the uncivil behavior among our elected officials, who are more focused on the game of politics than on tackling the serious issues our nation faces. In this climate, it is short-sighted to diminish, and even eliminate, history and social science classes in elementary and middle schools around the commonwealth. After all, these are the very subjects designed to help develop young, informed citizens worthy of Mr. Jefferson’s trust.

We urge educators and parents around the commonwealth to support the centrality of history and social science in the school curriculum. This support can be measured by the amount of time dedicated to the subject in the school day.

Parents must be especially vigilant. Ask your children and their teachers how much instructional time is dedicated to social studies during the week. Remind teachers and administrators that your children need this subject, and that the skills they learn, from literacy to critical thinking, are essential for success in any subject. Remind your state legislator that keeping history and social science in the school curriculum is essential to a high-quality schooling experience.

By supporting the teaching and learning of history and social science, we honor the foresight of Mr. Jefferson, who wrote in 1816, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

This column was written by
Gabriel Reich, Virginia Commonwealth University
Jeremy Stoddard, College of William & Mary
David Hicks, Virginia Tech
Stephanie Van Hover, University of Virginia
Yonghee Suh, Old Dominion University
Ashley Taylor Jaffee, James Madison University
Aaron Bodle, James Madison University
Jennifer Bondy, Virginia Tech
John Broome, University of Mary Washington
Brandon Butler, Old Dominion University
Michelle Cude, James Madison University
Patrice Grimes, University of Virginia
David Locascio, Longwood University
Gail McEachron, College of William & Mary
Anthony Pellegrino, George Mason University
Molly Perry, Christopher Newport University
Loraine Stewart, Virginia Commonwealth University