About Cari Zall

Cari Zall has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online environments. She currently works as the Curriculum and Instructional Support Manager for an online high school dropout recovery program, and is the Assignment Editor and a writer for The Educator’s Room, an online education magazine. Cari is certified in Gamification and has worked on several projects incorporating Gamification into online and traditional education environments. Her areas of expertise include Gamification and Student Resilience & Motivation; Conflict Resolution & Collaboration, and social justice education. Prior to her teaching career, Cari worked for 15 years in civil litigation and as a human rights activist in Northern Ireland and Washington, DC. She holds a BA in Conflict Analysis & Resolution, an Masters in Teaching, and an MA in Political Science. Cari is a James Madison Fellow, and is the author of the book, How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks: A Teacher Faces Layoff, Unemployment and a Career Shift. You can finder her on twitter at @teachacari.

In this installment of the Civic Education Series, we look at the impact of standardized testing on social studies and civics curriculum.

How Did We Get Here? (or, “Yay, History!”)

The first half of the 20th century saw several major education “reform” efforts.  The federal government inserted itself several times with major legislation, including Eisenhower’s National Defense Education Act (NDEA) that invested federal funds in raising Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) standards and access to higher education after the Sputnik satellite orbited the earth.  Later, Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty included the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which funded schools and districts with students who lived in poverty. But it wasn’t until 1983 that the federal government began to take an interest in curriculum intervention.

That year, A Nation at Risk (ANAR) was published.  While ANAR was not legislation or even a mandate, it was a widely read and discussed proposal about how curriculum standards should be changed across the country.  Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush, said that the federal government’s new reform efforts began with the belief that the source of problems in the American education system was “the steady erosion of the content of the curriculum.”  The study suggested national curriculum alignment, including three years of social studies.  This was the first time the federal government suggested nationally aligned civics curriculum, but because it was merely a report with no legislative power behind it, no laws were immediately enacted following ANAR’s release.

The most recent and largest federal intervention into education policy is No Child Left Behind, enacted in 2002.  This was not legislation based on previously cited issues of federal intervention into education, such as national defense or poverty.  This law codified the new movement of high-stakes standardized testing that had emerged after ANAR, with assessment mandates.  NCLB is more of a “technocratic” approach to basic skills using standardized testing rather than a deeper look into curriculum standards.  Because teachers have to set aside more and more time to prepare their students to take high stakes tests, the curriculum in public schools has been vastly narrowed.  Subjects such as Science, Social Sciences, and the Arts have fallen by the wayside in many states to make way for more concentrated time on testing skills.

The newest “reform” initiative, called “Race to the Top,” like NCLB, does not set higher curricular standards for states to work with, but rather punishes schools that don’t meet standardized skill performance goals.  In addition to the high stakes assessment requirements, Race to the Top also requires states that win its grants comply with student test-based evaluations for teachers.  In 2010, the Los Angeles Times used that testing data to rate teachers and printed teachers’ scores publicly.  The result was teachers across the greater Los Angeles area being “browbeaten” to focus more on test scores than their curriculum.  Several other cities have followed this example and have begun to publish the names of teachers and their students’ test scores, putting further pressure on teachers that has nothing to do with creating a rich curriculum environment for students.


Would a Civics Test Provide Standards?

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a civics exam given to random volunteer students across the country by the Department of Education.  The most recent longitudinal report, issued in 2011, finds that most improvement centered in elementary grades, not in secondary school.  Only 4% of twelfth grade students scored at the advanced level.  The exam organizes its questions into five main categories:

I.    What are civic life, politics, and government?

II.   What are the foundations of the American political system?

III.   How does the government established by the Constitution embody the purposes, values, and princi­ples of American democracy?

IV.  What is the relationship of the United States to other nations and to world affairs?

V.    What are the roles of citizens in American democracy?

The basis for the exam is stated in the 2011 Report’s introduction: Responsible citizens of a constitutional democracy such as the United States should have adequate knowledge of the country’s principles and institutions, skills in applying this knowledge to civic life, and dispositions to protect individual rights and promote the common good.”  

Though these sound like national social studies standards, there is no national legislation or code by which these standards are enforced or provided for.  In the end, states decide which civics standards they will use and those that appear in the NAEP exam are not necessarily the guidelines that are applied.   This unequal application of civics standards results in the matriculation of students with vastly differing civic skills, most of which don’t reach what the NAEP would consider “proficient.”


So What Now?

As long as schools, districts and states are held hostage to high stakes tests in order to fund their most basic resources, curriculum standards are going to fall by the wayside.  The most common victims will be non-tested subjects, such as Social Studies, Science, and the Arts.  Some states have instituted statewide tests in Science or Social Studies, but there is no national standard for these tests or any curriculum that would accompany them.  While skills testing becomes part and parcel of education “reform,” students are missing out on the kind of curriculum that rounds them out as human beings.

Civics is one of those subjects that has a real-world application which allows students to reach beyond the classroom in order to see themselves as active citizens.  Civics curriculum can enlighten, engage, and inspire students to change their world and get involved in their community.  At any grade level, Civics is a subject area that allows students to delve into who they are, to learn collaborative skills, and to critically think about decision-making and problem solving.  None of these things is easily put into a standardized test.  Hopefully, “reform” efforts will begin to value in-depth curriculum again, and subjects such as Civics will once again be a core principle of American education.

To buy Cari’s book that details her sudden unemployment, “How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks” please click here




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