Why is Virginia, cradle of America, killing its U.S. history tests?

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tags: education, history crisis



Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.

My entire life I have heard complaints about how little we Americans know about our history. So why is Virginia killing its annual U.S. history tests, while still requiring state exams in English, math and science?

I always liked Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests, particularly U.S. History to 1865 in fifth grade, U.S. History 1865 to Present in middle school and the high school exam, U.S and Virginia History. Twenty years ago, my first front page story as a Post education writer was about other states admiring Virginia’s new guide to key parts of our nation’s story.

Shortly after the courses and tests began in the 1990s, I read the history exams, which were locked in a room in Richmond. They covered a wide range of vital topics, were not too difficult and did not demand obscure memorization, despite an anti-test Fairfax County schools superintendent claiming (falsely) that the tests asked for the name of J.E.B. Stuart’s horse.

Few people shared my affection for those exams. Many students scored poorly. At one point, the state school board tried to solve the problem by lowering the passing score, but that didn’t help. In 2014, the Virginia legislature ordered a cut in the number of tests taken by the state’s children, and specifically eliminated the fifth grade and middle school U.S. history tests. The U.S. and Virginia history exam in high school is also about to disappear. The history courses remain without the required tests.

I predict this will happen in other states, too. Politicians seem to think the best way to reduce testing pressure is to dump tests, no matter how important. I wish they had listened to Mark Ingerson, a splendid Salem, Va., history teacher I know. He never mentioned the exams to his students until a month before testing day. “If you focus on learning and help the students to understand what they have mastered and what areas they need to grow in, the scores take care of themselves,” he said. ...




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