A plan to change Prince William's social studies curriculum has turned the usually sedate county School Board into a pack of critics.
For a board that passes half-billion-dollar budgets with quiet unanimity and reserves disagreements for closed-door sessions, reaction to the plan presented at the Nov. 6 meeting was noteworthy for its volume.
The problem centered on two classes that Prince William County requires of all students. Eighth-graders take World History and Geography to 1500, which covers prehistoric times up to the Renaissance and is often called World History I. High school freshmen take World History and Geography From 1500, also known as World History II, which starts in the Renaissance and covers subjects up to the modern day.
Under the proposal, World History I would be the ninth-grade course and World History II would be an elective sophomores could take. Bruce Leiby, the social studies curriculum supervisor for the county, said that once students see how well they can do on World History I, they'll have no problem signing up for the more challenging World History II.
The proposed curriculum change was prompted by a desire for students to excel, Leiby said.
"We need to be very sensitive that we are giving our students as many chances as we can to be successful," Leiby said, adding that as many as a third of freshmen currently get a D or F in World History II.
But others said the change is designed to help students pass the history Standards of Learning test.
Faced with the possibility that students could finish high school without taking a course that mentions World War I, World War II, Vietnam, the Korean War and other transformative world events, some board members made their displeasure known.
"To me, it removes a lot of what I consider relevant in social studies," said School Board Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp (At Large). "I don't think that most are going to elect to take, as an elective, World History II.
"I see us dumbing down our curriculum, and I've got to be convinced that's not what we're doing," Beauchamp said.
In addition, some students wouldn't have to take world history at all. The proposal also offers students a choice of taking World Geography in ninth grade to fulfill a social studies credit, allowing them a way out of world history in high school entirely.
"I don't believe World Geography is as difficult," said School Board member Steven Keen (Woodbridge). "It's not academically strenuous."
For all the criticism, other board members spoke just as firmly in support of the plan.
Member Joan R. Ferlazzo (Dumfries), who teaches World History I to freshmen in Stafford County, said she liked the idea of shifting the classes.
"World II is a lot of material for beginning high school students," Ferlazzo said. "What I like about World I in the ninth grade is that it's an easier SOL. It's one SOL they can count on doing."
The SOL tests -- taken in grades 3, 5, 8 and in high school -- is how the state measures school performance. Schools where 70 percent of students don't pass most of these tests risk losing accreditation in 2007.
School districts statewide have ratcheted up their efforts to meet the SOL requirements, especially in social studies, where scores for the first few years the test were given were consistently low.
Virginia, for its part, has changed the way the social studies tests are graded, requiring fewer correct answers for a passing score. According to an analysis by The Washington Post, 52 percent of Virginia schools that missed accreditation standards last year but met them this year did so based on improved history scores.
But the social studies scores for many schools are still lower than their scores in other subjects. Some county teachers see this proposal as a way to bolster those scores.
"Obviously, it's intended to get kids to pass the SOL test," said Pam Gwinn, chairwoman of the social studies department at Osbourn Park High School. "Our concern is that we are supposed to be educating kids to be ready for the 21st century, without teaching them about the modern world. It just doesn't happen that you wake up and have Afghanistan."
Cathy Boynton, chairwoman of the social studies department at Forest Park High School, said: "My biggest concern is that a lot of the kids won't elect to take World History II. As a department, we think World History II is much more relevant."
Board members are meeting behind the scenes to see whether they can come up with a palatable compromise before voting on the proposal Wednesday. One idea is to have World History I in eighth grade and World History II in ninth grade, but that would conflict with other changes proposed at the middle school level.
That the social studies proposal prompts such discussion is not surprising to board member Lyle G. Beefelt (Brentsville). Other social science courses, such as anthropology, have received similar attention.
"When you get into social science and biology, it's akin to discussing politics and religion," he said.