The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why is Virginia, cradle of America, killing its U.S. history tests?

My entire life I have heard complaints about how little we Americans know about our history. So why is Virginia killing its annual U.S. history tests, while still requiring state exams in English, math and science?

I always liked Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests, particularly U.S. History to 1865 in fifth grade, U.S. History 1865 to Present in middle school and the high school exam, U.S and Virginia History. Twenty years ago, my first front page story as a Post education writer was about other states admiring Virginia’s new guide to key parts of our nation’s story.

Shortly after the courses and tests began in the 1990s, I read the history exams, which were locked in a room in Richmond. They covered a wide range of vital topics, were not too difficult and did not demand obscure memorization, despite an anti-test Fairfax County schools superintendent claiming (falsely) that the tests asked for the name of J.E.B. Stuart's horse.

Few people shared my affection for those exams. Many students scored poorly. At one point, the state school board tried to solve the problem by lowering the passing score, but that didn’t help. In 2014, the Virginia legislature ordered a cut in the number of tests taken by the state’s children, and specifically eliminated the fifth grade and middle school U.S. history tests. The U.S. and Virginia history exam in high school is also about to disappear. The history courses remain without the required tests.

I predict this will happen in other states, too. Politicians seem to think the best way to reduce testing pressure is to dump tests, no matter how important. I wish they had listened to Mark Ingerson, a splendid Salem, Va., history teacher I know. He never mentioned the exams to his students until a month before testing day. “If you focus on learning and help the students to understand what they have mastered and what areas they need to grow in, the scores take care of themselves,” he said.

That’s a healthy attitude, but it does little to arrest the American tendency to make high school as easy as possible for average students. Students and their parents tend to complain about hard work. Virginia officials say dropping the history tests won’t make the courses too easy, but the educator they assigned to explain this to me was an odd choice for that mission.

I met Steve Constantino, now chief academic officer of the Virginia Education Department, in the late 1990s. He was then the brilliant principal of Stonewall Jackson High School in Prince William County. He turned that school into a model for the demanding International Baccalaureate program.

Even without the state history exams, he told me this month, “the course, requirements, standards, etc., are all still very much required and schools are accountable to ensure that students master the content. I believe what this does is move the course toward more of a deeper learning experience, i.e., IB.”

I asked if all vital points will be covered without the incentive of a big test. “Absolutely,” Constantino said. “Teachers I have spoken to are eager to teach their content and assess their students in a more authentic and engaging manner.”

“If you are so sure of that,” I said, “then why continue to have big tests for the other subjects?” The federal government requires that states give English, math and science tests, he said. I suspect Congress thought those subjects would lead to better jobs than history.

Constantino’s celebration of no more history tests overlooked something important. One of the reasons his IB program at Stonewall Jackson High worked so well was that his IB students had to take the nation’s most difficult final exams, some of them five hours long.

My suggestion is that Virginia replace its state history tests with IB exams. You can learn a great deal preparing for one of those even if you flunk it.

But that’s not going to happen. Constantino’s dream of deeper learning without challenging tests has never been achieved in American schools. So we will muddle along, not learning much history, since despite what we say, we really don’t think we need it.