Virginia Considers Dropping Third-Grade History Exam

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 2009

In the seven years since enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind law, students have spent ever more time filling in bubbles on high-stakes tests. But Virginia could soon join a movement to roll back testing programs, as it considers abandoning an exam that spans such matters as bartering, the ancient empire of Mali and pie charts.

Florida and Georgia have cut testing budgets, citing financial pressures. North Carolina might soon follow. And today, the Virginia Board of Education will take up eliminating the third-grade history test, a move state officials say would open up time for core subjects such as math and reading. But critics say they worry that ditching the test would hurt history education in the primary grades.

For 11 years, Virginia has given third-graders a Standards of Learning history test. Forty multiple-choice questions cover material from kindergarten through third grade, which state officials say puts an unfair burden on the memories of young children.

Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright predicted that teachers and administrators would welcome the change.

"It's not just about money, and it's certainly not about diminishing social studies," she said. "This is about freeing up elementary teachers' time to be more creative. . . . I am the last person that will go out on a limb and start unraveling our accountability system."

But some educators say that without test pressure forcing history standards to be taught, class time devoted to the subject could dwindle.

"I view this as a frontal assault on the value of social science education at the early grades," said Ken Bassett, president of the Virginia Consortium of Social Studies Specialists and College Educators and director of social studies education in Prince William County schools. "What we've seen from all across the country is that in places where they don't have these tests, the amount of time devoted to social studies instruction diminishes significantly."

Wright said the $380,000 a year saved through elimination of the exam could be used to construct new kinds of questions for math tests, put fifth- and eighth-grade writing tests online and bolster elementary reading exams.

Last year, 93 percent of Virginia's third-graders passed the history exam, and 84 percent passed reading, which Wright said pointed to a need for more lesson time on that skill. She said that reading classes could incorporate history lessons and noted that the state would still test students in history four times before they reached high school. Wright also said the underlying teaching standards wouldn't be changed.

Under the 2002 federal law, states are required to test students in reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school. The law also calls for more science testing.

Virginia is one of a few states with a history testing program, and education groups praise its curriculum routinely. In a 2006 study of world history standards in the 50 states and the District, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a District-based education think tank, ranked Virginia second in the country, tied with Massachusetts and behind California. The District ranked 27th and Maryland 29th. But neither the District nor Maryland tests history.

Many Virginia history education proponents confess to a love-hate relationship with the tests. They often complain that the multiple-choice format emphasizes rote memorization over analytical skills. But they say they would rather have something than nothing.

"In an environment where some subjects are tested and some are not, guess which lose out," said Bill Brazier, social science supervisor for Loudoun County schools.

Third-grade teacher Christina Hepner of Ball's Bluff Elementary School in Leesburg questioned whether it was fair to hold students accountable for material learned in kindergarten. She said that she teaches history with skits, writing exercises and games, and that her kids would not learn as much if the subject was taught with an emphasis on reading skills.

"Students can't just read it and connect to it," Hepner said. "A good lesson has to have more than one leg to stand on."

The state Board of Education could vote on the matter as early as today. Wright said a decision must be made within the next month or two if the exam is to be eliminated for the next school year.

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