“The way it stands now,” she told me, in any school district, “no assessment is required as long as the superintendent checks a box” on a complicated form. If he or she says the district is meeting the state standards for social studies, then it does, even if the electoral college is still a mystery to most 12th-graders.
School superintendents are busy people often forced to make compromises. Unless the state requires a test to measure whether students know their history and civics, superintendents may fudge on that issue to handle other crises.
Reilly knows this because her administrative talent and steely tolerance for endless meetings have taken her deep into the alphabet-soupy waters where education policies are born. At the state level, she has been involved in revisions of the state standards, related professional development and Standards of Learning assessment review committees. Nationally, she was part of a task force with the National Council for the Social Studies to review its College, Career and Civic Life Framework. She also is on the board of directors of the National Social Studies Supervisors Association, an umbrella organization for NCSS. She was NSSSA president in 2016.
Education writers such as me rarely mention these organizations because we get drowsy just typing their names. But teachers still need support they have not been getting lately in Virginia — and much of the rest of the country — if they are to give social studies students some nourishing rigor.
As a Fairfax County teacher of history, civics and economics, Reilly welcomed the Standards of Learning tests that raised the level of instruction in the 1990s. She is sympathetic to those who say testing has gone too far, but she bemoaned the pendulum “swinging back to letting the local school divisions do whatever they want in the name of ‘greater flexibility.’ ”
The weakening of Virginia civics and history is evident in the state legislature’s botched attempt to preserve some kind of accountability, she said. The state Senate this year in a 38-to-1 vote passed a bill requiring a verified social studies credit for high school graduation. It said the assessment to earn that credit could be a Standards of Learning test, or something like an Advanced Placement test, or a homegrown test as long as it was not a “performance-based assessment.”
Performance-based means letting students do tasks, rather than answer questions, to show they know the material. They may, for instance, design a city government or simulate the passing of a bill in Congress. Some legislators feared — I think rightly — this would be too easy, even if first certified by the state as one amendment would have required.
The bill died in the House of Delegates. Some legislators were against any kind of testing, some did not like high-stakes testing tied to school accreditation, some preferred performance-based assessments, and some supported teachers who do “not want to be told what to do,” Reilly said. She retired in October after 11 years as Fairfax County’s coordinator for K-12 social studies.
To her mind, social studies is at risk of being shortchanged, even in high-achieving Northern Virginia, in favor of reading, math and science. The only relevant Standards of Learning tests left are elementary Virginia studies and middle school civics and economics.
As I said, I love Virginia. My cellphone has a 703 area code even though I do not live there anymore. But when it comes to social studies, that beautiful state and much of the rest of the country are giving up.