by Adam Wallach, K-12 Coordinator for Social Studies, Stafford County Public Schools
The debate about eliminating SOL End Of Course Exams has risen to a fever pitch. There are a number of bills in the state legislature that call for cutting Social Studies and Science SOL exams. After having successfully fought off this issue in years past, it appears inevitable that there will be fewer tests possibly as early as next academic year. Less testing sounds wonderful! It is surely something that everyone can get behind- Democrat and Republican, Conservative and Liberal, student and teacher.
While, in theory, I am against high stakes testing because they rarely test what they claim to test, cause test anxiety in young students, and tend to favor a small number of students whose strength is demonstrating what they know on a traditional assessment. Despite my objections to high stakes, standardized tests, I disagree vehemently with removing SOL tests in Social Studies. Before you call me a hypocrite and burn me in effigy, let me lay out a case for why cutting SOL tests in Social Studies is more harmful than any potential benefits.
We have been subjecting students to high stakes SOL testing for almost 20 years. In that time, there is a well know axiom in public education. “If it isn’t tested, it isn’t taught.” Currently, the bills before the Virginia Senate seek to eliminate testing primarily in Social Studies, but also in Science. Specifically, HB 930 would remove SOL tests for 3rd Grade Social Studies, World History I (5th grade in Stafford) and World History II (6th grade in Stafford). Once these tests are gone, there is no accountability that the curriculum will be taught in any meaningful way. Even with the tests, the time allotted to teach Social Studies in elementary and middle schools has been disappearing. If the focus of the federal government and now state government is only on Mathematics and Reading, I fear that Social Studies instructional time will continue to dissipate. This trend of taking time from Social Studies in favor of Math and/or Reading is not just a Virginia issue, it is happening nationally.
The supporters of eliminating tests want fewer assessments especially in elementary school. HB930, which already passed the House and is in the Senate, calls for each school system to develop their own assessment to replace the SOL tests that are eliminated. If the purpose for removing tests is to unburden young students, clearly, this bill does not achieve that. It is counterintuitive to say you want fewer assessments, but you are actually keeping the same number. Additionally, the SOL test at the end of the course is not really the issue when you think about over-testing. All of the other testing that individual school systems require will still remain intact: Pre/Mid/Post tests, benchmark testing, universal screeners, diagnostic tests, teacher made tests and quizzes, mid-term exams, final exams, etc.
Some of my colleagues in the Social Studies community believe that they are leading a crusade to change testing in Virginia. Until the federal government treats all four core areas equally, it is naïve to think that advocating changes in Social Studies testing will impact how students are assessed by the state in Math or Reading. To truly change testing in the Commonwealth, the whole testing system needs to be overhauled. I believe and advocate fewer tests that are interdisciplinary. If we are serious about ensuring students possess 21st Century Skills and are career and college ready, we need to test skills not just content. Tests should have open ended scenarios that require students to analyze, synthesize, create, and use multiple skills from across the entire curriculum. This approach would allow for a real reduction in tests. For instance, instead of four SOL exams in 3rd grade create two tests. One would test use Reading as the basis, but incorporate Social Studies and Science content and skills. The other test would focus on Mathematics, but the questions would incorporate Science and Social Studies skills and content.
How does all of this impact Virginia museums and historical sites? You should be concerned about the “Law of Unintended Consequences” with any bill that eliminates Social Studies SOL tests. Once the tests are eliminated, the importance of that curriculum decreases. State accreditation will no longer be based on those classes. Therefore, the focus in schools will shift away from those courses. School administrators will focus entirely on Math and Reading. Resources will go toward Math and Reading. In a time when school budgets continue to shrink and there is less money available for field trips, why would a principal authorize a field trip to your museum if there is no impact on student achievement scores?
Before you decide to support elimination of tests in Social Studies, you should probably check your records from the last few years to see how many school age children visit your museum. If part of your funding stream involves field trips, you may want to have a contingency plan in place. If your museum is focused on school age children, you should be concerned. I suspect you will see far fewer class trips.