<< The Body Politic

Accountability for social studies?

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

U.S. Department of Education

Over at Education Week, Erik Robelen writes that “as states seek waivers under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, one effect may be to chip away at the dominance reading and math have had when it comes to school accountability.”

The states will do this by adding accountability testing for other subjects–especially for science, but some states also plan to begin testing writing and social studies. As we’ve noted before, as bad as the testing craze is, teachers realize that it’s even worse for their subject not to be tested. In last year’s report, High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do, for example, we found that 70 percent of high school social studies teachers think that social studies has become a lower priority for their school administrators because of the pressure to show testing progress in math and writing. Ninety-three percent agree “social studies should be part of every state’s set of standards and testing.”

While the states that are adding testing in other subjects acknowledge that progress in math and reading scores will still take priority, they hope that adding accountability standards for other subjects will increase the seriousness with which those subjects are taught.

Oklahoma and Colorado are good examples:

Oklahoma is moving to a new A-to-F grading system built around test scores in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies, as well as other measures.

A state official said that even though subjects like science and social studies had a role in the state’s prior accountability system, those subjects were not part of rating schools, and now are poised to gain greater attention.

“We did feel like the other tests were part of the [prior] accountability system, but not to the degree they will be now,” said Maridyth M. McBee, Oklahoma’s assistant state superintendent of accountability and assessment. In fact, she said she’s heard positive feedback from social studies teachers in particular.

“They say, ‘Finally, we won’t be the ones on the outside,’ ” she said.


Colorado recently developed a new state accountability system, with a focus on incorporating student growth in achievement that has drawn national attention.

“We framed our whole application based on our current [state] system,” said Keith E. Owen, the associate commissioner of the Colorado education department.

Science was already taken into account as part of that system.

Mr. Owen said his state expects to eventually factor in student achievement in social studies, once an assessment is designed.

“The state board has adopted that assessment, but it’s not been developed yet,” he said. “The intent is to include it in our overall accountability system.”

That move is welcomed by Fritz Fischer, a history professor at the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, and a former chairman of the National Council for History Education.

“In the educational world we live in, it is a positive development,” he said of the plans by his state and some others to include history and social studies in their accountability systems. “I am very sympathetic to those who think we test too much and we are obsessed with testing, but that battle is over.”

At the same time, said Mr. Fischer—who co-chaired a state panel to revamp Colorado’s K-12 social studies standards—it’s critical to make sure the tests “move beyond multiple-choice exams that test memorization and factual recall, and move toward the type of assessments that examine the historical-thinking ability of students.”