By Bill Bigelow
In late November, high school social studies teachers in the Portland area got our first look at proposed tests that the state claims will promote "higher standards." The tests -- which Oregon students will need to pass in order to earn a Certificate of Initial Mastery -- confirmed our worst fears. They are a collection of random multiple choice questions, demanding rote memorization and the application of almost no higher level thinking skills. If anything resembling these pilot tests is implemented, social studies teachers will have to substantially dumb-down our curriculum to insure students' success.
The problem with the tests is not any particular question. Their essential wrong-headedness lies with the assumption that learning is nothing more than fact-collecting. Test questions lurch from the Constitution to the New Deal to global climate to rivers in Africa to hypothetical population projections and back to World War One. Each of seven pilot tests in circulation has about 50 questions but, given the randomness of the topics, there could be an almost infinite number of other facts that could be sought on future versions.
What's a conscientious teacher to do? There is no way to adequately prepare students for these tests without turning our classrooms into vast wading pools of information for students to memorize without critical reflection. Teachers will have to reorient our curricula away from the role plays, simulations, research projects, essay writing, and other in-depth activities that breathe life into social studies and allow students to probe beneath the surface of "the facts."
Students can know a great deal about a subject and yet do poorly on the new tests. For example, one question asks which Constitutional Amendment gave women the right to vote. But the test asks almost nothing else about the movement that resulted in that Amendment. Last year, my U.S. History students at Franklin performed a role play on the 1848 Seneca Falls, NY women's rights conference, the first formal U.S. gathering to demand greater equality for women, including the right to vote. Several students researched and wrote detailed papers on feminist activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Grimke sisters, and Susan B. Anthony. They knew a lot about the long struggle for women's rights. However, unless they could recall that one isolated fact -- that it was the 19th and not the 16th, 17th or 18th Amendment (the other test choices) that gave women the vote -- the state of Oregon would have considered all their extensive knowledge irrelevant. How does this state-mandated memory contest promote "higher standards?"