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Assessing History: For SB 1654

April 16, 2014

Yesterday, Superintendent Barresi issued a bulletin asserting the importance of social studies tests. I’ll just share a portion with you here, but you can follow the link to the full post.

Superintendent Barresi joins educators in opposing
proposal to weaken social studies, U.S. history instruction

OKLAHOMA CITY (April 15, 2014) — State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi and various educators around Oklahoma and across the country are expressing concerns that proposed state legislation would erase Oklahoma’s ability to measure student knowledge of social studies, geography and a significant portion of U.S. history.

Senate Bill 1654 seeks to eliminate state assessments on social studies in grades five and eight, as well as geography in grade seven. The seventh-grade world geography test is the only time students are currently tested on geographic knowledge.

While the U.S. history end-of-instruction exam would remain in place in high school, that assessment only covers standards that encompass history following the Civil War.

That means students would not be assessed that they know about the founding of the colonies, the Declaration of independence, the Revolutionary War, the writing of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Civil War — in addition to everything else that happened in early American history.

“Oklahomans know what our nation’s flag represents. Thousands of Oklahomans sacrificed their lives fighting for it and thousands more are prepared to stand up for it today,” said Barresi. “If this bill passes — combined with another law enacted last year that diminishes end-of-instruction exams — it is possible that a student in Oklahoma could go through 12th grade without ever having been assessed on America’s heritage or values. What message do we send if we dispense with the ability to ensure the teaching of what, in many respects, is the story of America?”

Kelly Curtright, director of social studies education at the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE), said eliminating the assessments would deemphasize social studies in elementary and middle schools, which are the foundational levels of learning and assessing if our youngest citizens are understanding their history and heritage.” Curtright is also the current president of the Oklahoma Council for the Social Studies, which represents 1,400-plus educators.

“When citizens of a democracy are deprived of an effective social studies education, it places our citizens, our democratic principles and our Republic at risk. Citizenship illiteracy is no less destructive than reading illiteracy. We simply cannot afford to raise a generation of civic amnesiacs. Citizenship is as basic as reading, writing and arithmetic,” Curtright said.

This won’t be the fiercest post I’ll ever write, but I should say that I disagree with Barresi, Curtright, and everyone else cited in the full press release. It’s not that I favor marginalizing social studies. It’s that we have already done that. Testing narrows the focus of the curriculum to the state blueprint. It’s as simple as that.

It’s also worth noting that I haven’t found any social studies teachers yet who have looked at the new sample assessment items and felt that they were either developmentally appropriate or well-suited to the Oklahoma Academic Standards. We’re throwing our arms in the air because the future of our nation may be threatened if we don’t subject students to this flawed test…from now into perpetuity.

Ok, maybe there’s some hyperbole in there (on my part too). Failing to have a test does not deprive anybody of a social studies education. High stakes accountability testing every grade in reading and math is what deprives our students of the fullest possible social studies education. It hurts science, art, music, physical education, and meaningful computer training too.

The Tulsa World actually talked with the sponsors of SB 1654 – Mark Allen (R-Spiro) and Tom Ivester (D-Elk City).

Ivester, the bill’s co-author, called the press release “misleading at best and deceptive at worst.”

“This bill doesn’t eliminate the teaching of social studies or civics or anything like that,” he said. “All it does is eliminate any self-imposed testing that is not required by federal law.”

The father of three children — a kindergartner, second- and seventh-grader — said he has his own concerns about the levels of stress and anxiety created by current state testing, but his motivation for sponsoring the bill was the concern he has heard repeatedly from his constituents and other teachers and parents.

“Testing doesn’t necessarily equal learning or education,” Ivester said. “Eliminating a test doesn’t prevent the teaching of a subject. If you take the attitude that unless we test it, it won’t be taught, then sure, their press release works.

On one hand, I agree with Curtright and other social studies teachers who want to ensure that our nation’s history – and all the other content under that academic umbrella – has its due place in learning. On the other hand, I want to see the state spend less money on testing. And I want to see our teachers have more academic freedom. The reasons I abhor testing for reading and math carry over to my feelings about science and social studies too.

This bill passed the Senate unanimously. It should come to the floor of the House this week. While some of my readers may disagree, I hope it passes.

  1. April 16, 2014 at 10:43 pm

    It’s a truly tragic situation when we must choose between testing a subject and really teaching it. If the SS tests stay in place, chances are the teaching of Social Studies will be narrowed to those topics that will be tested rather allowing students to explore and to truly fall in love with history and geography and all the other Social Studies, which is what led me to an initial bachelor’s degree in history. If we don’t test Social Studies but continue to test Reading and Math per federal requirement, you can bet your sweet bippy Social Studies will not get the attention it should have. A true Catch 22. The only sane thing to do is get rid of high-stakes tests altogether. I’m watching the national push for that with high interest.


  2. April 17, 2014 at 4:23 am

    You want to talk about a catch 22. I tried to get hired in my current position before NCLB and didn’t get it because I wasn’t also a coach of some sport. Fast forward 6 years NCLB is in place; the US History scores needed to be improved, I go in for another position come out with the history teaching job. A dream job I never thought I would get in Oklahoma. I HATE testing, but testing got me hired. I have students who have told me they hated history or didn’t understand it or thought it was irrelevant until they had my class; I made a difference in my small little way all because of testing. I HATE TESTING, but it got me hired. So I don’t know how to feel about SB 1654.


  3. April 17, 2014 at 5:16 am

    Since this was about social studies, I would also like remind everyone that this Saturday will be the 19th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. I know it is in the middle of testing and on a weekend, but I think it is important to remember and teach even if it is not tested. We are out of school tomorrow so I will be presenting a special lesson in every hour day regardless of the class. Damn the VAM and EOI.


  4. April 17, 2014 at 10:22 am

    One could use this same argument to increase testing, especially in conjecture with TLA and the new VAM. The SDE’s catch phrase is “if you can’t test it, why teach it?” Although I can see the fear for SS teachers, the argument could be such a slippery slope.


  5. April 17, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    Kill all the tests. If we have to do it piecemeal, so be it. Social Studies teachers, if you’re worried about your jobs, keep reminding everyone who has a say about your position that reading history is still _reading_. I’m going to be really mad at anyone who tells me my kids have to keep taking these uninformative, high-stakes, high-stress tests so that they can keep their job.


  6. Lorie Brady
    April 21, 2014 at 9:22 am

    The problem is that we have some teachers that will not teach in a meaningful way unless it is tested. It is a sad fact. It is a Catch 22. My daughter loves history and she did not learn hardly any Oklahoma history or economics last year because the teacher was a coach. He would have them read a chapter and answer the questions at the end of the chapter. He wouldn’t even completely grade the papers. He would just assign a grade based on whether he liked the kid or not. The principal is aware but his hands are tied. When I was in school, some of my best teachers were coaches. What has happened to our profession?


  7. Red-cockaded woodpecker
    April 24, 2014 at 6:48 am

    This post is meant to bring a little clarity. You say you have not met one teacher that thought the new test items were developmentally or academically appropriate. Each of these items were vetted by a diverse group of Oklahoma social studies and history teachers. These teachers had the option to reject, revise, or accept the items. Every state produced test goes through the teacher getting process.
    I am not a big fan of tests. But it seems that understanding the development process, and criticizing the actual flaws, would be more useful to the conversation than bashing for bashing sake.


  1. April 22, 2014 at 8:00 am
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