Standardized tests are commonly blamed for narrowing the school curriculum to reading and math. That’s one reason Congress is considering changes in the law that could lead states to put less emphasis on test scores. But even if we abolished standardized tests tomorrow, a majority of elementary schools would continue to pay scant attention to subjects like history and science.
Consider this: In 1977, twenty-five years before No Child Left Behind ushered in the era of high-stakes testing, elementary school teachers spent only about fifty minutes each day on science and social studies combined. True, in 2012, they spent even less time on those subjects—but only by about ten minutes.
The root cause of today’s narrow elementary curriculum isn’t testing, although that has exacerbated the trend. It’s a longstanding pedagogical notion that the best way to teach kids reading comprehension is by giving them skills—strategies like “finding the main idea”—rather than instilling knowledge about things like the Civil War or human biology.
Many elementary students spend hours practicing skills-based strategies, reading a book about zebras one day and a story about wizards the next.
That’s a problem for all students:...