Social studies exams shouldn’t be first on the chopping block

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Some Ohio lawmakers and educators recently proposed to roll back the state’s social studies exams, which presently include tests in fourth and sixth grade and end-of-course assessments (EOCs) for high-school students in both U.S. history and government. The proposals come from two avenues. As part of its version of the budget bill, the Senate Finance Committee would scrap fourth- and sixth-grade social studies testing. Meanwhile, an assessment review committee convened by state superintendent Paolo DeMaria goes further and jettisons all four social studies exams. (Superintendent DeMaria’s opinion differed from the committee, as he suggested that Ohio drop its fourth grade test and U.S. government EOC while leaving the other two in place.)

In today’s anti-testing climate, it’s not hard to see why policymakers are willing to abandon these exams. Unlike math, reading, and science, testing in social studies is not required under federal law and dropping it would marginally reduce total test burden while also satisfying political demands. Yet before policymakers sacrifice social studies on the anti-testing altar, they should consider the important reasons not to.

Social studies is an essential content area

One of the central missions of education is to prepare citizens and a key part of that is the duty to impart to every young person a sufficient knowledge of economics, geography, government, and history (world, national, and state). As former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Congressman Lee Hamilton write, “Knowledge of our system of governance and our rights and responsibilities as citizens is not passed along through the gene pool. Each generation of Americans must be taught these basics.” As my colleagues Robert Pondiscio and Kate Stringer discovered, many (though not nearly enough) districts include citizenship in their mission or vision statements. While testing per se can’t guarantee that schools are effectively educating pupils in these key subjects, it signals that they are essential elements of every child’s education and it assures the public that schools deliver at least a minimum amount of social studies instruction. Without assessment data, it’s difficult to gauge in any objective or systematic way whether students are attaining the knowledge necessary for informed citizenship.

Cutting these assessments would demote social studies to second-class status, which will deprive many young Ohioans of any understanding of, e.g., what the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence say or how the Northwest Ordinance paved the way for Ohio’s statehood. It will fail to ensure that all Ohio pupils are able to distinguish Cincinnati from Columbus on a map (much less identify which one is the state capital). Neglecting social studies will do little to help students leave high school with a firm grasp of how elections work, how public policy is made, and how markets function. Alongside the “three Rs” and science, social studies should be seen by all as a key ingredient in every child’s education, as knowledge in this content area remains essential to a flourishing democracy and thriving economy.

The issue of testing time is not solved by dropping social studies exams.

If reducing testing time is the aim, policymakers would better focus their efforts on eliminating the tests used in connection with Ohio’s broken teacher evaluation system. Consider the chart below, which displays typical pupil time on tests of all sorts. As you can see from the two purple slices, most testing is local assessment used to satisfy state policy requirements or student learning objectives (SLOs). Used to evaluate certain teachers (e.g., gym or art), SLOs are a very time-intensive form of assessment. Although it’s not clear what is included in the darker purple segment, vendor assessments (also used in teacher evaluations) are likely part of that slice. Requiring schools to spend many hours testing kids so as to generate teacher ratings doesn’t make sense, especially when those evaluations fail to differentiate performance and are rarely used in HR decision making. Policymakers should toss SLOs—a course of action recommended by Superintendent DeMaria—along with evaluations based on vendor assessments. Dropping these unnecessary tests would significantly ease the testing burden and yield more instructional time.

Chart: Average time on testing over Ohio students’ K-12 education

Source: Ohio Department of Education, Slide 11 from “Superintendent’s Advisory Committee on Assessments: Update to SBOE” (June 12, 2017)


State leaders are right to recognize that schools have limited time and that testing can grow to consume too much of it. In this instance, however, they have misjudged the deeper root of the problem. Unproductive yet burdensome testing associated with SLOs and vendor assessments could usefully vanish. Instead, sadly—and dangerously for the state’s future—social studies exams are on the chopping block, despite the fact that they gauge pupil achievement in essential subjects and have relatively light testing burdens. The future of the Buckeye State—and of the nation—hinges in no small part on young people who have a firm grasp of our history, government, and the economy. Ohio policymakers should know that better than anyone.

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.