Common standards and teaching to the test – continued

So, as threatened, I want to continue my discussion of common social studies standards and teaching to the test.

What I found missing from the draft national social studies standards is any serious suggestion of what content students should be expected to master. After the debacle over the national history standards in 1994 this may be a wise choice, but it begs a very important question. What will be on the test? The Department of Education promises — threatens? — to produce national tests. If the standards are a reliable guide, these tests will, like the social studies section of the ACT, attempt to identify students’ ability to interpret texts and data, and not attempt to identify students’ actual knowledge of history, geography, government, or economics (which are, at least in my school, the core social studies courses).

And this void will, unfortunately, make it harder to teach to the test.

Since commentators of almost every ideological persuasion condemn No Child Left Behind for encouraging “teaching to the test”, I’d like to put in a good word for this educationally valuable function . . . with a few caveats.
For most of the past decade, I taught to the test, or more specifically, to the AP European History, AP U.S. Government, and AP Comparative Government tests. Like every AP teacher in America, I groused about the tests. The College Board wanted us to cover too much material. They wanted us to cover the wrong material (in fact I’m working on an article about why eliminating military history from AP European History has distorted students’ understanding). The relentless pacing of the class precluded detours down historical scenic byways and cut short lively debates over the day’s headlines.

So be it. Teaching to the test, or more specifically teaching to give students a fighting chance to score well on the test, was good for my students. It was good for me as a teacher as well.
Wonder why? I’ll continue this in the next post.

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