Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

Social Studies, Social Justice: W(h)ither the Social Studies in High-Stakes Testing?

Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

Social Studies, Social Justice: W(h)ither the Social Studies in High-Stakes Testing?

Article excerpt


High-stakes, standardized tests have become ubiquitous in public education in the United States. Teachers across the country are feeling the intensified pressures from high-stakes testing policies and are responding to these pressures by teaching to the tests in varying ways (Renter et al., 2006). Given the hegemony of high-stakes testing in schools today, this article seeks to explore the question: W(h)ither the social studies in high-stakes testing?

Drawing on the available body of empirical research, I will argue that social studies teachers are feeling the pressures of high-stakes testing, and that these pressures are causing social studies teachers to alter their classroom practices and curriculum. Further, I will posit that the social studies represent a special case in relation to other subjects because the changes to pedagogy and content are variable, and the amount or significance of these changes depends on specific factors such as test design or whether or not individual sanctions are tied to student performance on the tests. Finally, I argue that, because of the consistent variability connected to social studies teaching in relation to high-stakes tests, social studies education, in many instances, is positioned to provide an education that challenges the hegemonic norms of high-stakes testing generally as part of a broader need to teach for social justice in today's schools.

A Brief Social History of High-Stakes Testing

A test is considered high-stakes when its results are used to make important decisions that immediately affect students, teachers, administrators, communities, schools, and districts (Madaus, 1988). These decisions may include whether or not a student graduates high school or is promoted from one grade to another, and they may also include the salary scales and tenure status of teachers and principles (Orfield & Wald, 2000). As part of the "accountability" movement, stakes are also deemed high because the results of tests, as well as the ranking and categorization of schools, teachers, and children that extend from those results, are reported to the public (McNeil, 2000), thus putting the reputation of states, districts, schools, principals, teachers, and students up to public scrutiny and judgment.

The publication of A Nation At Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) ushered in the contemporary standards and high-stakes testing movement (Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2005). This report was a product of the Reagan administration and, as such, it attacked public education for failing to keep up with other foreign powers within the context of Cold War geo-politics. Even though the data and analysis used in A Nation At Risk was later determined to be empirically false (Berliner & Biddle, 1995), nonetheless, this report "galvanized the fledgling accountability movement, transforming it into a national project with purported national security implications" (Sacks, 1999, p. 77). Within a year of A Nation At Risk's publication, and following suit with many of the report's recommendations, fifty-four state level commissions on education were created, and twenty-six states raised graduation requirements. Within three years of its publication, thirty-five states had instituted comprehensive state education reforms that revolved around testing and increased course loads for students (Kornhaber & Orfield, 2001). Thus, the trajectory of education reforms into the 1990s was set, where forty-three states had statewide assessments for k-5 by 1994, and by the year 2000 every state but Iowa administered a state mandated test (Jones, Jones, & Hargrove, 2003).

The movement toward high-stakes testing continued through then Republican Vice President George H. Bush's campaign for the presidency where, as the self-proclaimed "education president," he endorsed minimum competency testing for grade promotion and graduation. …

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