Please note - what is written below are my opinions, and are in no means correct, wrong, etc etc. I am going off of what knowledge I have on the subject and my own feelings. I am by no means an expert.
In the state of Virginia, we have these standardized tests known as the Standards of Learning, or the SOLs. They test the four core subjects - math, science, language arts, and social studies. Students take these at various grades, including (but not limited to): third grade, fifth grade, eighth grade, and eleventh grade (please note, I skipped some grades there). In the elementary schools, they generally take tests that cover all four core subjects.
As of yesterday, there was a bill introduced into the Virginia General Assembly which would get rid of the SOL tests for science and social studies at the third-grade level. This is being done as part of a push for increased emphasis on literacy and math skills in students, but I cannot help but to wonder - will this push help or hinder students in the long run?
Let’s think about this.
Unlike their counterparts in secondary education, elementary school teachers are a “jack of all trades,” so to speak. They teach all subjects, whereas secondary education teachers tend to have a specific content area which they focus on. Especially nowadays, a lot of teachers teach to the test - that is, they teach what is emphasized by the SOLs for that grade. If the SOLs focus more on math, then the class focuses more on math. If the SOLs focus more on science, the class focuses more on science. The teachers focus on what the state and national governments say is important because that is what brings in the good test scores, which in turn helps bring in more funding to the school system (it also makes principles and parents happy, but that’s a different discussion all together).
By cutting out the SOLs for science and social studies, it is safe to assume that teachers will then focus more on math and language arts. Science and Social Studies (the Two S’s, if you will), will be pushed to the back burner, and may be addressed as teachers have time. But by and large, it seems safe to say that seeing as many teachers teach to the test, many teachers will therefore emphasize math and language arts in their classrooms.
Are we then, as educators, doing the students and our fellow educators a disservice? Think about it - third grade is generally a good median point in elementary education. It is just far enough that the students have gotten the basics down, but early enough that they haven’t yet gotten into much of the complex topics. By testing on all four subjects at that grade, educators can get a good idea where their strengths and weaknesses are - they can better serve their students and customize their unit/lesson plans accordingly.
If we wait until fifth grade to test on science and social studies, however, what then happens to the students who are weak in these subjects? Do the principles and teachers at the elementary school get the scores and go, “oh, crap, well I guess they’re the middle school’s problem now?” The contentious thing to do would be to give the middle school teachers a head’s up - but even the most idealistic people know that this is incredibly unlikely.
By not testing in third grade, we potentially set the students up for failure, both in the short run and the long run. In the short run, students will come into upper level classes under-prepared and spend the next several years (possibly the rest of their educational career) playing catch-up. Teachers are saddled with the burden of trying to help their students catch up and make up for the knowledge they are (for lack of a better way of putting it) lacking, which makes it an unpleasant experience for both parties involved. As educators, we will have done a disservice to the students and effectively failed in providing them a well-rounded education.
But what about in the long run? How could not testing students have long-term consequences?
I think it is safe to say that we would like to have informed and educated people in our society. And part of being a member of society is voting in elections - it is one of our civic duties. The students that sit in elementary schools this very day will one day be voting - for presidents, for congressmen, for legislation. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, that we would want the people who will be voting in the future to have some understanding of history, geography, and how the government of their state and country works?
Part of this ties back to what I said earlier - teachers tend to focus their curriculum on what will be tested. If they are not being tested in social studies, they will not focus as heavily on social studies. Thus, the students will be lacking the information to make informed decisions when they get older and are doing things such as voting.
Also - as mentioned before, part of this is being done as a push to emphasize literacy and math skills in the schools. While there is little that social studies can do to help with math skills, literacy and social studies go hand in hand. Much of what we study in social studies is based on books, documents, and writing. As educators, we can tie the two subjects together and reap the benefits of both. For example, a teacher could use historical documents and a writing exercise to help with certain reading and writing skills while still teaching social studies. Nothing says the two subjects have to be taught separately - they just have to be taught.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the General Assembly has their own reasons for considering this bill and for introducing it to the floor. Administering tests takes money, which is tight, and school budgets are constantly getting cut. We have reached a point where it is difficult to find places to cut funds without shortchanging someone. But by cutting these tests, aren’t we doing the students a disservice in the long run?
I don’t know about your or me, but I am studying to be a teacher to help students, not hinder them. And I cannot see any benefits that could come of this.