Academic journal article Social Education

Testy Times for Social Studies

Academic journal article Social Education

Testy Times for Social Studies

Article excerpt

ACROSS THE COUNTRY, thirty states have mandated tests for social studies. Out of these, the majority of states have plans for, or already have in place, tests that are "high stake," linking student performance to graduation or other measurements of success or accountability. Despite the fascination with the concept of tests--high stake or otherwise--the jury is still out as to whether they promote learning in the classroom.

Some argue that mandated testing keeps teachers on task and provides necessary guidelines to make sure that limited teaching hours are spent productively. On the other side are those who argue that tests restrict teachers' initiative and make it impossible for teachers to respond to the needs of their particular classroom.

Nowhere is the ambivalence over testing requirements more apparent than in the legislative sector. The data over tests are constantly in flux. State legislatures repeatedly pass and rescind laws that mandate these tests and/or define their use.

Amidst the confusion, one thing is dear: Social studies teachers can play a part by helping optimize the positive and minimize the negative impacts of testing to make sure schools stay focused on the goal of enhancing learning.

From Standards to Assessment

In many ways, the preoccupation with assessment of instruction has its roots in the last decade's debate over curriculum reform and, more specifically, curriculum standards.

During the 1990s, educators were consumed with the need for content area standards. National guidelines as recommendations for voluntary standards abounded. Teachers in all content areas were besieged by lists, advice, suggestions, books, and ultimately volumes of material that content specialists had determined to be the ideal curriculum for specific subjects and grade levels.

The social sciences were not immune to the plethora of well-meaning dictates that flowed from the experts' fountains of knowledge. In fact, the social studies, characteristically an ambiguous and all encompassing field of study, may have offered a broader target than did the language arts, mathematics, or science. In 1994, social studies educators were recipients of the social studies standards, civics standards, geography standards, and the first version of the history standards. (1) (After the latter provoked a controversy, they were withdrawn, and new, revised history standards were published in 1996.) Economics standards followed in 1997. (2) All of these national standards documents offered recommendations from the professional organizations that developed them for the knowledge, skills, and attitudes social studies students should learn.

Although the national standards can only provide recommendations for voluntary curriculum guidelines, their impact has been significant and widespread. State and district curriculum frameworks have, to one degree or another, emulated the national standards. Hence, the standards are having a concerted impact in classrooms across the nation. Furthermore, many teacher education programs now use the national standards as foundational materials in preservice teacher education courses--an initiative that will further augment the standards' influence and momentum.

The calls for curriculum reform, as characterized by the national standards movement, have positioned educators where they find themselves today--in the midst of a complex and controversial conundrum called "accountability" How can it be determined if standards are being met if there are no prescribed means of discerning student proficiency? The all-important link between curriculum and assessment is now being scrutinized, refined, and, perhaps most importantly, documented. To ensure the successful implementation of newly adopted standards, schools recognize the need for valid and reliable systems for testing students. …

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