Flatlining on NAEP Social Studies

Flatlining on NAEP Social Studies: An Unintended Consequence

The May 6, 2015 Education Week included a few paragraphs of reporting on the just released NAEP results in US history, civics and geography tests of 2014.  These are the first tests since 2010, and show “Nation’s 8th Graders Flatline on NAEP in Social Studies Subjects.”  Should anyone be surprised? As a former Social Studies high school department chair, I’m not surprised, but I am dismayed.

Mandated Tests Don’t Care About Social Studies

In the so-called reform movement, schools have been mandated to test ELA and math, and in practical terms, nothing else matters as much as these ‘core’ subjects. While both are important, and I would argue ELA is the more important of the two (as several of my past blogs have implied) the way testing has driven ELA skills in interpretative directions with passages at increasingly more difficult reading levels per grade, social studies has been pushed to the side in schools everywhere.

Do Common Core Standards Expect Social Studies to be Taught?

One of the implied intended outcomes of CCSS is the additional emphasis on nonfiction reading and critical thinking. That suggests really creative teachers and curriculum developers might well be able to build some ELA CCSS content that uses social studies nonfiction passages to embrace the higher order thinking skills CCSS intends. Having taught both ELA and Social Studies in my career, that can be done. However, in practice, I suspect that most of the ELA materials that embrace nonfiction are not designed to teach the content of history, civics or geography (certainly not geography) to meet CCSS expectations. Being able to read and interpret nonfiction is the end in itself, while the goal of a US history course would be to understand America’s evolution as a democratic nation with all the historical wonders and wrinkles that entails.

Narrowing Curriculum

High schools still usually have relatively clear graduation requirements for US history courses. Many states still expect some version of civics as a separate course or as a part of other social studies requirements. Few expect geography these days. And as one moves back in grade levels to examine what time is spent on these content areas in earlier grades, it’s clear that since the onset of the NCLB requirements, schools have spent less and less time on subjects other than ELA and math. Some underperforming schools and too many charters are ELA and math factories. The first subject losers were anything resembling experiences that foster creativity, like art and music, drama, band and orchestra, because budgets had to focus on providing remediation programs and test preparation to meeting accountability requirements, and students in need of assistance had no time in their schedules anymore to participate in these nonacademic opportunities. It’s only gotten worse in every school where test results and mandated support programs drive the budget and the school schedule.

Suburban Schools Can Still Provide a Whole Child Education

Where poverty is minimal, the penalties that destroy a full curriculum in so many schools are less evident. Many suburban schools continue to offer a rich curriculum even while they see the numbers of children in such programs declining. Middle-class schools still struggle with budget and scheduling issues mandated for low performing students, but have a pool of better performing children with involved  parents who expect and support a rounded school experience. Rich districts rarely face these issues.

Research Shows We’re Doing This All Wrong

Some folks pay attention to research that highlights the benefits of educating the whole child, including providing art and music experiences, or socio-emotional learning experiences, just two examples of areas that consistently are found to help students do better in school, and implicit in life beyond school. Edutopia.org published this revew of Social Emotional Learning Research, for example: http://www.edutopia.org/sel-research-learning-outcomes A web search on what enhances student performance will reveal a range of programs and schools experiences that benefit learning and academic success, few of which are valued by ‘reformers’ who think test-based accountability is the answer to all our woes. Too bad our politicos never learned to read nonfiction educational research.

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