Well, I think we found something close to closure in the social studies test saga. It won’t be back for a while…but there’s still hope.
Since we last left the saga of the missing state social studies tests, I have been badgering the Regents to give a more intelligent response than the terse, one-line cast-off I was given. Apparently, it must have touched a nerve to e-mail over the Jewish holiday, because today I receive a response from Dr. John King, Senior Deputy Commissioner for P-12 Education at the NYS Education Department. Dr. King wrote:
Dear Mr. D:
I appreciate the opportunity to respond to your concerns regarding the Grades 5 and 8 Social Studies Tests. They were canceled due to fiscal difficulties, not because they were inadequate assessments. Given the current fiscal climate, there are no plans to reinstate these tests in the immediate future.
States may not use Race to the Top funding to support the development and administration of summative assessments. The US Department of Education held a separate competition for assessment funding, but that was focused on the development of a new generation of ELA and mathematics tests. It is worth noting that the application of literacy skills to social studies texts will be a feature of the next generation of ELA tests.
Thank you for your interest in New York State’s testing programs and for all the work you do on behalf of our students.
Dr. John B. King
This response was a whopping two-paragraphs longer than the last note I received from one of the Regents. In spite of all the jerking around this summer, I really did appreciate Dr. King being frank with me about the reason why the tests were cancelled. Still, I didn’t exactly want to let him off the hook. Here was my response:
Dear Dr. King,
First of all, thank you so much for responding to my concerns. I had reached a dead end all through the summer and I appreciate your candor and forthrightness in explaining the situation and the disposition of funds re: summative assessment.
Also, I fully take into account the difficult fiscal situation we are in, and accept the fact that social studies assessments will not be reinstated in the immediate future. I had wished that social studies not be the perennial whipping-boy of austerity, unlike ELA, mathematics, and science, but such is the situation we face.
However, I do want to leave you with some words for the future. In my years of experience of teaching in the No Child Left Behind universe, I have come to one immutable conclusion: if a subject is not tested, then it is not taught. The pressure, often the terror, of failure in exams has pushed students, teachers and administrators to focus efforts on those subjects that matter most to the education establishment, namely ELA, mathematics, and science. Social studies, far too often, has been left on the backburner, either through tests that have little or no stake in promotion or in half-hearted attempts to “integrate” social studies into the more “preferred” disciplines.
I caution you, however, to not create a “holy trinity” of subject matter while leaving social studies as the mincemeat of integration. Former Harvard president Derek Bok once said that “If you think that education is expensive, try ignorance.” We cannot produce informed, intelligent citizens without a focused, intense instructional system in social studies. Integration into ELA, while useful, does not highlight the content, but rather the reading skills and strategies. The content matters. Our democracy cannot function if our citizens now little or nothing about its form, function or history. This instruction cannot be left to ELA curricula that have different priorities in mind.
To put it in more urgent words, do you trust the future of our American democracy to students that have been cheated out of a proper education about American democracy?
Please remember these words when the fiscal situation changes.
Thank you very much for your time.
I think this was an appropriate ending–albeit unwanted–for this summer’s social studies drama in New York.
However, that doesn’t mean we will give up the fight to restore social studies’ rightful status in the education of New York’s schoolchildren. If you want to contact Dr. King and give your reasons to protect social studies in this state, here’s his contact info:
Senior Deputy Commissioner
89 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12234