Failing Grade for History in Virginia Government Schools

See this story from today’s Daily Press:

U.S. history still trips up students

The state has excluded history scores from the accreditation process for many middle schools.



October 27, 2005

STANDARDS OF LEARNING — Virginia is steeped in national history, but its young students aren’t too familiar with the United States’ early years.

Scores on the state’s Standards of Learning exam on American History to 1877 – given to fifth- or sixth-graders – were so low that state officials have decided ,for the past two years, that the scores on the History I exam don’t have to count toward a school’s rating.

The students’ limited understanding of American history is disappointing – especially in a place surrounded by historical sites, said Bill White, director for educational program development at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

“Neglect of history in our schools has already generated two generations of Americans who don’t have a good grasp of who we are as a people,” he said. “This is a national problem and a long-running problem. It’s not something that’s going to be fixed in a school year.”

Because the foundation’s mission is to improve history education, it offers training for teachers and interactive television programs for students nationwide.

“What we need a public school system to do is to create good future citizens of the United States, and the only way to do that is to make sure children understand American history,” White said.

The current history exams began in the 2003-04 school year. Students previously took a cumulative test in eighth grade. But most now take an exam each year of middle school – on American History to 1877, American History Since 1877, and Civics and Economics.

“Changes require a time period for adjustments – for the new curriculum to be in place, for teachers to revise their classroom instruction,” state Education Department spokeswoman Julie Grimes said.

The History I exam is particularly challenging because of all the information that it requires fifth- and sixth-graders to know, Grimes said. “These are some of the younger students … that are being tested on a lot of facts,” she said.

Still, Grimes said, next year’s History I scores would count in the accreditation process.

It couldn’t be determined how many schools in the area and the state excluded History I scores because of low passing rates. But many schools pressured the state to allow the exclusion, she said.

Mathews County schools are among those that benefited from the state’s decision. “Being able to not count, that certainly played out well for us,” Assistant Superintendent George Kidd said.

For two years in a row, Mathews students’ passing rates fell far short of the state’s 70 percent benchmark. Just 50 percent of fifth-graders passed the History I exam last school year, up from 39 percent in 2003-04.

Eighty percent of Mathews’ sixth-graders passed the exam for American History Since 1877, while just 66 percent of seventh-graders passed the Civics and Economics exam.

The reason for low scores is a mystery to Kidd. He said a position was created for a teacher to review students’ SOL answers and pinpoint trouble spots.

“We’re puzzled as much as the state as to why we’re not seeing better scores, ” Kidd said. “We’re grateful that the state gave us another year to get to the bottom of this with them.”

In Isle of Wight County, the History I exam was excluded at Smithfield Middle School as a result of a 66 percent passing rate, which administrators attribute to one low-performing class. The poor scores were the result of an instructional issue that’s been resolved, said Mary Mehaffey, assistant superintendent for instruction.

Poquoson was one of the few school systems that kept the cumulative history test, which 92 percent of eighth-graders passed last year, said Marilyn Barr, assistant superintendent for instruction.

She said, “We had a good system in place, and our students were doing well with it.”

End of Article.

Please note that the Poquoson kids passed. Hmm. Maybe the history teachers did what the tiny (two teacher) biology department did years ago. The biology teachers looked at everything taught in science k-9 and looked for the holes in building blocks of scientific knowledge. They filled in the instruction in what should be cumulative learning. The results were spectacular.

Likewise, my wife’s school in York County has passed the SOLs every year from year One when under 1% of the schools made it. They evaluated each child to see what they didn’t know. Then, golly gee whilikers, they taught the children – as individuals – with extra instruction including volunteer tutors in class and after school to bring them up to speed. This is a school with 20% ‘at risk’ population in schoolese.

K-12 teaching isn”t rocket science. If it is done properly the kids can become rocket scientists.

I still remember things I learned in Arlington County history (3rd grade), Virginia history (our Yankee 4th grade teacher, Mrs Scharf, actually taught about the feats of Confederate arms) and U.S. History (5th grade). The best class I have had was a two hour course combining English and History in the 11th grade – called American Civilization (soon to be the web site I am building).

Final note. It’s wrong to exclude the failing subject for accreditation. Either schools pass or they don’t.

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  1. Avatar

    JAB: You’re definitely on to something. One of the things that I’ve noticed over the years is that, for all the talk about patriotism and citizenship, history & social studies education is the bastard child of the major subjects. The teaching of history – though not rocket science – does require fresher approaches than what people often get away with. Additionally, parents bear a responsibility for educating themselves and their children about history and taking them on trips to see History come alive.

    The multigenerational knowledge gap is definitely there as I’ve heard/read of two well-educated, Baby Boomer lawyer-politicians (one guy is married to a certain NY Senator, and the other guy is your pick for VA AG this) refer to “Jefferson” writing about “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” in the “Constitution.”

    — Conaway

  2. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Conaway: Agree. Speaking of parents on a personal note, I was not doing well enough in reading in the 2nd grade. So, in the days before air conditioning for most everybody, my mother took me to the County library extension, which occupied an apartment in the WW II garden apartments across from Westover on Washington Blvd, to check out books. I was bribed with a dime payment for every book I read. I read biographies and history for greedy capitalism and it became a passion. I was the only kid in my high school senior year, Yorktown, to get a ‘5’ in AP American History SAT.

  3. Avatar

    I totally understand your perspective. My parents lit up the highways of VA and beyond with our station wagon/minivan going to historical sites. Battlefields, plantation, museums, etc. Aside from the Disney World type trips, all of our vacations had a history/geography lesson component. That plus, my oddball sense of humor, caused quite a stir in the Gettysburg gift shop when I bought a bunch of Confederate history books and a flag!

    Honestly, we have to figure out a way to get kids more excited like we were. Not everyone will grow up to ace the AP test (you) or captain the HS history team (me), but it will at least get them to not sleep through the Gilded Age….

    — Conaway

  4. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Actually I know something to help teach history, geography, environmental science. At the risk of sounding like a sales pitch, my dayjob includes help in marketing a thing called a Touchtable (c) to Federal customers. It is a great way to get students involved in history, but the hardware costs $300k.

    It is unclassified until you put classified data on it. We have customers who do that.

    It might be affordable for colleges. If you look at the new google globe maps – forget the web site – where you zoom in and out of maps, this does it on a table, but you do it by moving your hands like the Tom Cruise sci fi movie (filmed in part in Gloucester Co). The maps zoom in and out for the whole globe – or whatever maps you have layered in the data base on a regular PC. Plus you can layer them to do a time line. You can ‘draw’ on the maps like a white board.

    It would take work (simple powerpoint) to get the underlying maps and cool graphics but it could make teaching history come alive.

    Some ex-Disney engineers made the company in CA. My employer is their marketing help.

    Visiting historical sites is a big motivation, as you and I did as kids.

    One last point. As education consumers, my wife and I, had to be aggressive – with mixed results – for our kids’ education in government schools. Too many teachers use group projects and handicrafts as substitutes for reading. We found them using film, not documentaries, but Hollywood instead of teaching. Not good. I went to a school board meeting to present this years ago. I got a nice patronizing letter for my efforts. So, we just kept it parent to teacher. I checked their textbooks and assignments – and got them out of group grading. I went to see the teacher for my youngest daughter’s AP government class when her brand new textbook bragged how it included new findings in ‘race, gender and class’ on the front flap. Thankfully, the teacher was a Conservative Christian who would not teach PC history.

  5. Will Vehrs Avatar
    Will Vehrs

    Of course, when an innovative teacher tries to teach history in a way young students understand, she can get crucified.

    The experience of Andrea Tavenner at Swift Creek Elementary in Chesterfield County is instructive. She did everything “hands-on,” trying to get the students to experience historical events. When she held a slave auction for one class period, however, all hell broke loose. Never mind that the kids played King George, had a Boston tea party, fought the Revolutionary War on the playground, and acted out numerous other historic events. One 40 minute slave auction for her ten year olds and all hell broke loose. Her job was on the line for several weeks until finally Supt. Canaday stood up for her methods.

  6. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Will: I hope you are using the word ‘everything’ as hyperbole. Hands on is good in moderation. If the kids hear it, read it, write it and keep doing that, they will learn. Hands on can be part of the hearing it. But kiddie content will be limited compared to a documentary, dvd, etc.

    I think that incident was in the papers. The problem was the subject of racial sensitivity, not the methods of hands on.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    I was blessed to be raised as a child of the American Empire, meaning my AF dad served in several places around the US and the world, and we got to go with him to some, from Paris to Ephesus to Athens to the 64 Worlds Fair. I’m struggling to remember what I learned in history class — my passion for it grew out of visiting the places, hearing the interpreters and the park rangers. The sweet lady who tought me high school American history could make Gettysburg boring — but luckily by then I’d already been to Gettysburg proper and had walked the fields where my grandfather’s great uncles marched with the Stonewall Brigade.

    I pity the schools. The topic is so rich with controversy, as it should be, that they are totally terrified of having any fun with, like that example above. And it is the conflict and controvery which matters, which gives history its importance. At the same school I had a an excellent government teacher who spent much of his time on American diplomatic history (go figure), and the things he said then — in jest, and to be provocative — would get him hanged today. To this day I’m still not sure he was always kidding — and I think of Porterfield often.

    Parents — they don’t call it the Boob Tube for nothing — anybody in this state who hasn’t taken their kids to Monticello, Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, DC and Philly should turn in their cable remote. And if they can’t afford it with their families, the schools should do it, too.

  8. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Anon: You have dated yourself. The 64 World’s Fair was one of the most intellectually exciting things in my young life.

    If I remember correctly, Life, Look, the Saturday Evening Post weekly photo magazines all did big spreads. I read them overseas and begged my parents to go see them.

    I saw the exhibits on “the future’ as the life we would live.

    We got to visit for one day upon our return from Europe (Dad was in the Army). I was thrilled.

    Sidebar: A black officer friend of my parents (Southerners from SC and TN) helped take care of us in the big city from Ft Hamilton to the Fair and back. I thought nothing of it. His family, our next door neighbors in France, had been to our house many times and vice versa. Yet a few weeks later in TN and MS I saw ‘Whites Only’ signs for the last time in my life. 1964 Wow. Good riddance.

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