by Scott Eckers
High-stakes testing policies have reduced elementary-level instructional time for untested subjects, raising questions about the extent to which students’ content knowledge in social studies has been compromised. My research compared social studies assessment performance of two student cohorts from the same New York State school district, one required to take a state assessment (2009) and one eight years after its elimination (2017). Students in the later cohort produced significantly lower overall achievement scores and lower scores on most sections of the test, including skill-based constructed-response items and four of five strands of social studies content tested with multiple choice items. Special Education students in the later cohort produced lower scores on all sections of the test and were impacted approximately twice as much on constructed-response items. Findings suggest that social studies curriculum as prescribed by the state was not taught as thoroughly in elementary schools following elimination of the state test. Recent instructional trends applying literacy skills to social studies have been insufficient to mitigate deleterious effects associated with elimination of the assessment.
Students were assessed on overall content knowledge and achievement in five strands of social studies (United States and New York History; World History; Geography; Economics; Civics, Citizenship, and Government) using content-based multiple-choice questions and skill-based constructed-response questions. Controlling for gender, ethnicity, and disability status, there was an 11.0% reduction in overall social studies knowledge from the 2009-2010 to 2017-2018 school years. Students had a greater drop on the multiple-choice section than they did on the constructed-response section (12.9% and 8.7%, respectively). This suggests that students were affected by the elimination of the assessment but were not affected equally on all components of social studies. Although students in both cohorts exhibited lower scores on the multiple-choice section than on the constructed-response section, the content-driven questions on the multiple-choice section of the assessment were more problematic for the 2017-2018 cohort than the skills-driven questions on the constructed-response section. The elimination of the assessment had a larger effect on aggregate multiple-choice achievement than on constructed-response achievement.
Within the multiple-choice section, the elimination of the assessment affected different strands of social studies unequally. Students had the largest drop (21%) in knowledge on historical facts related to United States and New York History, the strand of social studies featured most prominently in the curricula of the fourth and fifth grades. Strand 5 (Civics, Citizenship, and Government) is also a major part of the fourth and fifth grade curricula. Students learn, for the first time, the basics of how the United States government was founded and how the Constitution helps guide the nation. The study showed a 12.7% reduction of knowledge on this strand. Student knowledge of economics (the study of money, trade, and scarcity) dropped 11.5%. Given these clear reductions, there is a strong reason to believe that the core curriculum as prescribed by the New York State Education Department (1998, 2014) was not taught as thoroughly as when the students were assessed on the same material in years past. This affected basic knowledge and appreciation of American society and government, civics, history, and economics.
The strand of social studies affected the least by the elimination of the assessment was World History. Only three questions on the assessment addressed the World History strand, which may not have been enough to draw solid conclusions. Additionally, the study of foreign cultures and world civilizations is not stressed until sixth grade, the last year of the New York State elementary curriculum. Since the basic curriculum guide has not changed in decades, it would stand to reason that World History was the most inconsequential strand of social studies on a fifth-grade assessment and the one least likely to have been affected by its elimination.
Social studies is not simply about names, dates, and facts. Students are expected to improve their literacy and develop critical analysis skills. The constructed-response section of the assessment was designed to measure these skills and the research showed a reduction of 8.7% from the 2009-2010 cohort to the 2017-2018 cohort. Although recent trends in Common Core instruction apply literacy skills to social studies, this study suggests that such effort is not enough to mitigate the full effect of the elimination of the assessment.
The reduction of social studies knowledge among elementary students requires changes in secondary school instruction. Students who arrive in seventh grade without a working knowledge of elementary facts and skills could face difficulties learning historical content. Previously, students and teachers were able to “spiral” information learned and taught in fourth- and fifth-grade American History lessons and then apply higher-level analytical skills to some of the same information in later years. For example, students might learn some of the main reasons for the American Revolution in elementary school (e.g., taxes or the Quartering Act) and then read and analyze Enlightenment-era primary sources in junior high school that explain the foundational reasons for such a rebellion. Without the specific content knowledge about British taxes and laws, students in seventh grade have to spend time learning basic facts before attempting to work on higher-order thinking skills. Teaching research methods or the writing process through historical inquiry is stymied if students need to spend more of their time and effort playing catch-up on content. Further, many students may need remedial work in social studies skills such as reading maps, identifying bias, or understanding charts.
The length of time for social studies instruction, however, is not expected to increase at the secondary level. Teachers will be faced with a dilemma: spend time remediating incoming students or finish the curriculum. If seventh-grade teachers do not get to cover the Civil War, eighth-grade teachers must start earlier in history. This would result in topics being cut or curtailed – especially those following the Cold War era. Recent history such as the Clinton, Bush and Obama presidencies, years, the events of September 11 the war on terror, and current events would fall by the wayside.
The problem would cascade through the curriculum as high school teachers would be pressed to help students achieve mastery rates on subject-specific exit examinations. If a goal of social studies is to produce informed, participatory citizens who are critical thinkers, it is essential that students leave high school with not only basic facts and skills but an experience that will help them contribute positively to the world. In these challenging post-fact times, social studies knowledge is as important as ever before.
In all areas of the test except Civics, Citizenship, and Government students classified as disabled scored significantly lower than their general education peers. General education students had an 11.6% reduction in overall knowledge while special education students had a 13.8% reduction. A particularly significant reduction for special education students was on constructed-response performance. This section, which focused largely on social studies skills and analysis, saw an 8.5% drop in achievement for general education students and a 16.5% drop for special education students. The elimination of the fifth-grade assessment had almost twice the negative impact on special education students on questions that called for reading, analyzing, and writing about maps, charts, texts, and pictures.
The district in which the research was conducted was one of general affluence. A quick look at an online real estate website showed the typical home for sale listed between 1.5 and two million dollars. Fewer than 6% of the students received free or reduced-price lunch. This affluence has affected school-age residents by creating a school atmosphere that many would consider conducive to broadening students’ minds.
Students were enrolled in a school that provided a vast array of curricular and extracurricular offerings, even at the elementary level. The school offered programs in computer coding, performing and visual arts, athletics, and special education. Despite literature showing a connection between affluence and cultural literacy, the data indicated that scores on the elementary social studies assessment were still significantly lower when students and teachers were not held accountable by the state. This suggests that social studies instruction matters at the
Elementary-level regardless of affluent socioeconomic status; having a good supplemental education in the social sciences was not enough to match social studies knowledge of children taught in the previous decade.