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Our friends at the State of Ohio Education blog rightly call Ohio's recent move to eliminate social studies tests in grades five and eight a "short-sighted decision," not just because a basic understanding of history, geography, civics, and current events is critical, but because Ohio students happen to be doing poorly in these subjects. Barely half of eighth graders and 61 percent of fifth graders passed the social studies assessments last year. Gov. Strickland is being criticized for allowing budget concerns to drive the decision to drop the exams (along with abandoning writing tests in grades four and seven), a move that will save $4.4 million dollars.
States are not required by NCLB to test social studies. But Ohio's decision to eliminate these tests is foolish on several fronts. First, Ohio can't fully address the "unacceptably low student achievement" in social studies without having data that illustrate how students (and sub-groups of students) are performing in that area. Second, although the state plans to re-implement social studies tests after the current budget cycle (by June 2011), the quality of Ohio's longitudinal data is weakened by interruptions in testing (and who's to say that Ohio's budget will be in better shape by then?). Finally, social studies subject matter is simply too important not to emphasize (whether or not an appropriate "emphasis" can be achieved with or without testing is up for debate, but I won't go into that here).
A few recent stories highlight this concern particularly well. As a recent Newsweek blog (that featured Checker) put it, the "changing nature of school curriculum" (i.e. a decline in the role of civics education) may be partially to blame for the political drama that unfolded prior to President Obama's speech to the nation's schoolchildren. And the announcement of a new 9/11 curriculum, to be tested in seven states this year, is a reminder - especially on the day's anniversary-of the powerful role played by current and historical events in shaping our national identity and consciousness. Few would argue that topics like these should have a diminished position in our classrooms.
But for now, social studies exams are being yanked from Ohio classrooms, leaving us without a way to measure what students are learning in the subject. While the trimming down of standardized tests has everything to do with the budget crisis facing Ohio, we can't help but wonder not only when the state will decide to reinstall the tests, but whether our students are being equipped to understand the historical magnitude and economical underpinnings of the recession-the alleged reason the tests were removed in the first place.