Earlier this week the Virginia Senate passed a bill that would end state history and science testing in 3rd grade. The reasons? You can guess—money. Dumping the tests would apparently save 920k in fy2013. And, according to the bill’ sponsor Sen. John Miller, a desire to intensify elementary schools’ focus on reading and math instruction: “I believe it makes common sense to concentrate on reading and math, and give a good basic foundation in those two core subjects for our students.”
Miller does not understand how children learn to read. You simply cannot teach reading effectively if you aren’t building students’ academic vocabulary in history, science, and other core subjects. Students’ reading skills will stagnate after 4th grade if they have not been fed, and do not continue to get, a hearty diet of literature, social studies, and the sciences. So sending the signal—as dropping assessments does more clearly than perhaps anything—to Kindergarten through 3rd grade teachers that history and science are less important than reading and math skills is perilous.
Unfortunately, most other states already have sent this signal. The home of Washington and Jefferson is among the last holdouts that put a strong emphasis on history testing at the elementary level. A 2008 report by StandardsWork found that they were one of just six states that that had mandatory social studies testing every year between 3rd and 8th grade. Things have only gotten worse since. And not just at the elementary level. Last year we wrote about Maryland’s decision to scrub – again, supposedly for budgetary reasons – its high school graduation exam in Civics and Government. These short-sighted decisions at the state level, along with national level threats such as the recent move to drop required science testing from NCLB, paint a grim picture for the content of public education. And they do so at an odd and perilous time.
Forty-six states and DC are in the throes of implementing the new Common Core State Standards in ELA and Mathematics. The full name of the ELA standards is the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (my italics). These standards are not intended to drive history, science, and other subjects from the curriculum. In fact, because of the strong emphasis the standards put on the importance of using informational (non-fiction) books, they are a wonderful platform for teaching students MORE about history, science, the arts, etc. The standards are intended to be implemented in the context of a “well-developed, content-rich curriculum” (a quote from the CCSS’s preface), not in an intensely narrow, skills-only context.
While legislators in Virginia and elsewhere insist that elimination of the tests in no way minimizes their support for the content, we know from studies, including a recently completed study by our organization, that “what gets tested gets taught.” Ninety-three percent of respondents in Common Core’s recent national survey of school teachers blamed high stakes tests in math and reading for the narrowing of the curriculum they see occurring.
Let’s not treat education like an expendable piece of infrastructure that can be mined for cuts when the budget gets tight. In the end, narrowing our children’s education is the most costly mistake any state can make.
Lynne Munson with Emily Dodd and Barbara Davidson