Social Studies Tests from Hell

The problem with Oregon's latest high-stakes test goes beyond any particular question. Its essential wrong-headedness lies with the assumption that learning is nothing more that fact-collecting.

By Bill Bigelow

Illustrator: Kathy Sloane

Students would be forced to memorize random facts in order to pass Oregon’s new social studies tests. Photo by Kathy Sloane

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?”

In a demonstration of its own shaky grasp of the material on which it tests students, the state shows that the reverse is true as well: one can master isolated morsels of fact and remain ignorant about the issues that give those facts meaning. For example, in a test question repeated throughout the seven pilot tests, the state uses the term “suffragette,” an inappropriate and dismissive substitute for “suffragist.” Someone who had actually studied the movement would know this. As Sherna Gluck points out in From Parlor to Prison, women in the suffrage movement considered this diminutive term “an insult when applied to them by most of the American press.”

Inevitably, the state’s “one best answer” approach vastly oversimplifies and misrepresents complex social processes. One question reads: “In 1919, over 4.1 million Americans belonged to labor unions. By 1928, that number had dropped to 3.4 million. Which of the following best accounts for that drop?” I presume the correct answer is A: “Wages increased dramatically, so workers did not need unions.” All the other answers are obviously wrong, but is this answer “correct”? Do workers automatically leave unions when they secure higher wages? Weren’t mechanization and scientific management factors in undermining traditional craft unions? Did the post-World War “Red Scare,” with systematic attacks on radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World and deportations of foreign-born labor organizers affect union membership? The state would reward students for selecting an historical soundbite that is as shallow as it is wrong.

And I wonder if Oregon parents know that the state standards, on which the new tests are allegedly based, remove huge areas from the high school curriculum: virtually nothing before the last decade or so of the 19th century is supposed to be covered in high school. No early European/Native American contacts, no American Revolution, no slavery or slave resistance, no Abolition Movement, no Civil War, no building of the railroads, no Reconstruction. The pilot tests include not a single question on any of these topics so vital to understanding today’s society. Evidently, the state supposes that the earlier something happened, the less complex it is; thus, it should be studied only by younger children.

In meetings with Portland area social studies teachers, Oregon Department of Education officials acknowledge that the tests are superficial and that other more thoughtful assessments would be preferable. But “the public” demands tests, they claim, and it would take several more years to develop something better.

Parents and “the public” do not want tests that are little more than “high stakes Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy,” in the words of one scholar. This is my twenty-first year as a Portland teacher. My contact with parents leads me to believe that they want their kids to think deeply and clearly, to write with knowledge and passion. Parents want their children to know that they can make a difference in the world. They want them to be engaged in classroom activities that draw on their youthful energies and challenge them to question. I’ve never had a parent tell me: “Get my child to memorize as many facts as possible.”

The Oregon Department of Education is about to inaugurate tests that will hurt education. Instead, it should support Oregon teachers as we work at the grassroots level to develop genuinely higher standards for students. It can help us develop assessments that are integrated into the curriculum, that are not overly prescriptive, and that promote complex thinking. It is not too late for the Oregon Department of Education to put the brakes on its 50-fact tests.

Bill Bigelow (Contact Me) is an editor of Rethinking Schools and teaches at Franklin High School in Portland, OR. This article originally appeared in The Oregonian and is reprinted with permission of the author.