I’ve been writing a lot about the problems with high-stakes standardized testing. This week’s topic fits right in with it because it is a somewhat hidden, but critical, side effect of the problems associated with our current testing policies. I’m speaking of the teaching of the social studies.

Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts spoke about his concerns about social studies education.

“In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital. We have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside,” Roberts said.

I don’t always see eye to eye with Justice Roberts but, on this topic, I couldn’t agree more.

As a veteran social studies teacher, I can report firsthand and researched data to verify that high-stakes standardized testing has had a profoundly negative impact upon the perceived value of the social studies. Because so much emphasis is placed upon math and language arts, social studies takes a back seat far too often and research suggests that this trend, in turn, has a negative impact on test scores.

It is a demonstrable fact that, since the age of high-stakes testing, social studies now receives the least amount of time in the elementary grades as compared with the other core subjects. I’ve seen, firsthand, that social studies is often an afterthought in the elementary years, sometimes being loosely blended in with other subjects, sometimes left out all together for long periods of time.

Research is beginning to show that this has dire consequences when it comes time for those students to take standardized tests.

According to the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), “reading assessments require background knowledge from social studies disciplines like civics, economics, geography and history.” Read a standardized test and you’ll find this is undoubtedly true. The CCSSO states, “poor readers with strong background knowledge display better reading comprehension than strong readers with low background knowledge.” That’s incredibly crucial data that isn’t getting enough attention.

Solid social studies background knowledge is more crucial to reading comprehension than strong reading skills. So why are we short-changing social studies in the early grades?

It’s not just the early grades that rob time from social studies. I can assure you that it happens in the middle grades as well. For instance, whenever non-academic business needs to be taken care of — things like vision screenings, hearing tests, computer-based formative standardized assessments, makeup tests, etc. — it is very often the social studies class that is used to take care of that business. I probably lose at least three days of instruction each year for such things.

On Day One, when my students enter my class, I tell them it’s the most important class they have, and I mean it. I wish more higher-ups agreed with me.

Shane Phipps is an author and teacher in Indianapolis. Contact him at shphipps@gmail.com

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