Standard Issue(s): High Stakes Testing Concerns

Y’all!

School is over!

(I get to spend time with my family so I don’t feel even a little guilty for being excited)

South Carolina has been out of school since June 6th; however I have taken the continued working for 2 weeks with the district’s Social Studies Curriculum team. I have done this for several years now but this year I was particularly excited about this process because we have new South Carolina US History Standards!

…turns out I might be the only US History teacher excited about this…


I guess I should explain my excitement and, like most of I blog, I am going to make this about myself. When I graduated in 1997 which was pre-NCLB but New York state was early to the standardized testing game. We had the Regents exams in all core subjects. US History was no exception which had the unfortunate side effect of making our US History class less about teaching History and more about regurgitating facts. One US History teacher at my high school was fond of calling his class “US History Regent’s Test Prep”. Another teacher utilized the “read this section and answer the questions at the end for homework” technique. Luckily I am very good at regurgitating trivial facts in multiple choice format and excelled in most of my History courses. Because of my good grades I thought I was good at History and figured teaching History would be a good career. That all changed during my first class at SUNY Fredonia.

I double majored in Social Studies Education and History. My first semester was a struggle as I was thrown into actual Historical thinking for the first time. Some classes featured the “lecture – multiple choice test” curriculum model but the best did not. The problem was DOING History as opposed to regurgitating names and dates. The most embarrassing assignment came in a methods course. Our class was expected to identify the year a globe was made. Sounds simple but I had no clue how to “analyze the document” and the difficulty it posed impacted much of my teaching philosophy. As I learned how to practice the discipline of History I vowed that when I became a teacher none of my students would leave my classroom without Historical Thinking Skills.


Ok, that was an overly long introduction to the new 2020 South Carolina US History Standards!

I would like to point out that the new standards revolve around 6 Historic Thinking Skills!

These types of Historical Thinking Skills have always been central to my teaching because … well… It’s good practice. That said there is a lot of pressure on teachers to produce high scores on High Stakes Tests. In South Carolina schools gets a “report card” that detail how their students performed on the End of Course Exams (EOCs). For a decade there has been a US History EOC and the directive in the Social Studies departments has been to raise test scores. That EOC has been a 56 Multiple Choice Questions content tests based on chronological standards from the Colonial Era to the Present. The support document even has sections for each standard subsection called “it is essential for students to know” and “it is not essential for students to know“. The subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) push has been to teach to that test content and avoid actual DOING history. I went to a state department of education sponsored Professional Development once that literally had “Drill-and-Kill” on a recommendations PowerPoint Slide.

When the new standards were approved I was thrilled because I assumed that this would lead to a paradigm shift. With the standards broken down by skill rather than strict chronology my assumption was curriculum discussions would center around incorporating the content information into skills based lessons. The trick is that South Carolina is in a “bridge year” meaning that only information both standards share will be tested. This year the incentive still exists to focus on Content Memorization.

I have never subscribed to the notion that DOING History and doing well on the EOC were incompatible. Every year I take the equivalent of 3 weeks worth of in-class time to have students create National History Day Competition projects. This project allows students to develop their own inquiry question, select a personalized topic and product, and research a topic deeply. While working on the project there is some effort to review content but the major focus is on students BEING Historians not just regurgitating facts. Throughout the year my students and I spend far more time working on projects, analyzing and discussing sources, and reflecting than I lecture or have them take quizzes. Since I began the NHD and other project based activities my EOC test scores have improved or maintained every year.

We will see how the 2020 South Carolina Social Studies standards play out after this upcoming bridge year. My fear is that the EOC will remain unchanged and that the promise of the new standards goes unfulfilled.

As for me and me class though…

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