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There is a new civics assessment but is it enough to help improve civic knowledge, understanding, and virtue among the next generation?
Does having the return of a formal mandated statewide civics assessment suffice to realize the importance of civic education (and Social Studies education for that matter)? The obvious answer is no.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MA DESE) recently announced it “will conduct a required field test a new MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) grade 8 civics assessment across all schools enrolling grade 8 students” starting in the 2023-2024 school year. DESE is currently in the procurement process for a new assessment contract to begin in the 2024-2025 school year.
It’s been nearly 15 years since there was a History and Social Science MCAS assessment in Massachusetts schools. In 2009, then-DESE Commissioner Mitchell Chester recommended to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to postpone the History and Social Science graduation requirement, citing budgetary concerns, thus indefinitely suspending the History and Social Science MCAS in grades 5, 8, and 10/11. That move resulted in a sad and catastrophic tragedy as local school districts invested heavily in English Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science at the expense of Social Studies education, especially in the elementary grades. Presently, on average, elementary students receive no more than 3 hours of Social Studies instruction per week, compared to nearly 11.6 hours of English Language Arts per week and nearly 6.3 hours of Mathematics per week. Additionally, this also has a profound impact on female students and students of color, as they scored lower on tests of civics knowledge than white students.
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It is a bit ironic to see Social Studies educators, who once vocally protested against high-stakes testing back in the 1990s and early 2000s, now anticipating a History and Social Science MCAS assessment simply to, for good reason, compete with the other subject areas and to remain relevant and essential in elementary and secondary education. If having a high-stakes assessment means raising the support for and investing in Social Studies education in our schools, then so be it.
But is the return of a mandated statewide civics assessment enough to realize the importance of civics education—and Social Studies education for that matter—in our schools and for our students? Does the announcement from DESE change the overall scheme of all things Social Studies in public education? The simple and obvious answers to both questions are: it does not and it is not enough.
Design and focus of the grade 8 civics assessment
The new grade 8 civics assessment consists of two components—a state-level performance task and an end-of-course test. The state-level performance task shall be supported by a local-level performance task, which consists of group work and discussions to prepare students for the state-level performance task, and the task largely aligns to one of the seven History and Social Science practice standards. The end-of-course test will assess the breadth and depth of the grade 8 civics content and practice standards, and it will be administered online.
The overall design of the assessment focuses on performance tasks and practice skills as essential components to measure a student’s knowledge and understanding of civics content. The local-level performance task assessment instructs students to collaborate in groups to read, analyze, and discuss a set of sources—e.g., political cartoon, statistical chart, primary source document, photograph, etc.—presented, then respond to a series of short answer question prompts. The state-level performance task is a computer-based assessment that consists of presented sources and question prompts for students to answer. Below are some screenshots of the local level and state level performance tasks, which can be viewed on their website:
The majority of questions in the end-of-course assessment provide sources from which students examine and analyze to provide a response to the question prompts. Some in the form of multiple choice, but there are instances where students write a short response or select the correct response by clicking a button or from a drop-down menu.
Student-led non-partisan civics projects
As if the state and local-level performance tasks and an end-of-course test was not enough, while DESE was in the process to revise the History and Social Science curriculum framework, the Massachusetts General Court was in tandem working on a bill to promote and engage civic education in schools.
A few months after the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s approval and eventual formal adoption of the 2018 Massachusetts History and Social Science curriculum framework, then-Governor Charlie Baker signed An Act to Promote and Enhance Civic Engagement into law, which established and set up the Civics Project Trust Fund that will provide funding to underserved communities in the state, for teacher professional development training, and to establish a competitive evaluation of a student-led civics project available to all eighth grade students. The new law also requires all public schools serving students in the eighth grade and each high school to “provide not less than one student-led non-partisan civics project for each student provided.”
By the 2019-2020 school year, Social Studies educators found themselves tasked not only to plan and prepare for eighth grade and high school students to take on non-partisan civics projects, but also prepare eighth grade students for a performance task and end-of-course test assessment in the next couple of years.
At this moment, schools are required to only report to DESE whether or not it has provided students in the eighth grade and in high school the opportunity to engage in a student-led non-partisan civics project annually. Some educators believe the civics project should be the required civics assessment, while others feel that the civics project is already time consuming and overwhelming and prefer the performance task and end-of-course test.
Massachusetts will soon have a civics assessment… now what?
The grade 8 civics assessment is simply taking a snapshot of what our eighth grade students currently know and understand about the historical and philosophical influences of our democracy, how our system of government is structured and operated, and how they can make a positive impact in their community and society by enacting positive change and leading to create equal opportunities for everyone living, studying, and working in the United States of America. The civics project will enable students practical experience to engage with each other and their community by identifying and investigating challenging issues that their community face, and seeking ways to respond, raise awareness and conversations, and find practical solutions.
Simply having a grade 8 civics assessment is not enough to inspire or compel school districts to invest in their Social Studies departments or even provide professional development opportunities and support to its Social Studies teachers, as they have done for Language Arts and Mathematics, and Science/Technology/Engineering to some extent. It will take more than a civics assessment, even when required by the state, for school districts to realize the benefits of a viable and comprehensive Social Studies (that includes civics) education. Despite the commendable efforts by the state and DESE to promote civic education, public school districts across the state have yet to commit the funding, resources, and professional development support to Social Studies educators to prepare for what’s to come, and it is not likely the school districts will change anytime soon.
Schools must factor assessment results to identify what the student is able to demonstrate and capture student’s present strengths to improve on their abilities to learn and understand, analyze, communicate, and lead effectively in order to accomplish and achieve in life.
What’s important to bear in mind is what we do with the assessment results and how the results can help inform educators to better plan and deliver instruction and, perhaps more importantly, students (and the adults in their homes) to identify areas of their own learning to improve and prepare for success in college, career, and civic life. Schools must not rely on assessment results solely for accountability purposes and correcting standard (or substandard) instruction and teaching. Rather, schools must factor assessment results to identify what the student is able to demonstrate and capture student’s present strengths to improve on their abilities to learn and understand, analyze, communicate, and lead effectively in order to accomplish and achieve in life.
The benefits of a viable and comprehensive Civics (Social Studies) education in Kindergarten through grade 12
A recent longitudinal study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute concluded that minutes of Social Studies instruction have a direct correlation to literacy scores, especially in underrepresented school districts. The longitudinal study, conducted in Fall 2020, found that increased and consistent (that is, 50-minutes daily on average) Social Studies instruction starting in Kindergarten through fifth grade, led to higher reading and writing scores, compared to elementary students who did not receive as much Social Studies instruction between Kindergarten and fifth grade.
I have long argued (for decades actually) how consistent Social Studies instruction can improve literacy and communication skills. As students broaden their capacity of knowing and understanding historical events, people, and places, they will have greater context to what they read and will be able to comprehend more effectively. Students will also have more content knowledge to write about something or anything and allowing them to express more thoughtfully and with confidence.
There is also a behavioral benefit to having a viable and comprehensive civic education, especially when learning begins in the elementary grades. For years, in the school district where I serve, I have pushed for character education starting in Pre-kindergarten and Kindergarten by promoting “character traits of the month.” where students learn about a particular character trait each month through mentor books, and experiential learning activities. Learning about and exhibiting good character are essential to promoting civic identity and civic virtue and responsibility. Allocated time for Social Studies instruction has allowed children to learn about themselves and how they engage with their peers, teachers, and family members and friends, and how to conduct themselves and each other with respect. As students grow (mature), they hopefully realize the consequences of and avoid poor habits, such as bullying and/or being a bystander, apathy, plagiarism and cheating, and a sense of personal entitlement. Character is the foundation for a strong civic identity within a society.
Our democracy depends on a strong and healthy civic knowledge base. After all, the American public education system as we know it today was founded on the notion or idea of cultivating a strong and well-informed citizenry. This is evident in the works of Thomas Jefferson, who firmly believed that education is the cornerstone of democracy, and Horace Mann, who advocated for a free compulsory public education as a means of promoting social stability, moral education, and democratic values. Students not only learn about the foundation, structure and operation of their local, state, and federal levels of government, but equally—if not more—important how they are impacted by government and how they can enact positive changes to make the United States of America “a more perfect union” for everyone. Furthermore, with greater civic knowledge, students become more critical of information they receive and be able to identify and dispel bias and misinformation. The more they understand and appreciate the functions of government, they are more apt to think creatively to address and even solve real-world problems.
The need for an elementary curriculum framework
Since the Massachusetts Education Reform Act (1993) and the development of the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks, I have long criticized DESE for departmentalizing subjects in the elementary grades. There should have been an elementary (PK/K-5) curriculum framework. Instead, elementary principals and teachers must manage to work with seven different curriculum frameworks, where each framework was developed separately, and structured and presented differently from one another with varying guiding principles. scopes and sequences, and thousands, if not hundreds, of content, skills, and practice standards. As the years went on, one of the frameworks would be subject for revision, and now elementary educators must keep track with each framework and stay current as different frameworks are being revised. Add to the emphasis on Language Arts and Mathematics by way of assessments and other measures of school accountability, it is—in my humble opinion—the reasons in which civics and Social Studies have become marginalized—if taught at all—in the elementary grades.
Having a comprehensive elementary curriculum would allow educators to develop, plan, and deliver meaningful theme-based, perhaps project-based, instruction that could easily incorporate civics content and learning alongside literacy, math, science, and character education—think of each unit of study having a civics strand along with a literacy strand, a math strand, a science strand, a music and arts strand, and so forth. An elementary curriculum would have allowed for teachers and students to explore and examine civics concepts and sense of community, citizenry. and identity constantly throughout the school day and year, instead of a disconnected twenty-minutes a day—only three days a week—to get through a civics lesson.
I do not claim to have all the answers. I do know—through decades of personal experiences and candid conversations with educators, fellow colleagues and counterparts, and mentors, many of whom are renowned experts in the field of education and schooling—that the current practice is not sustainable, and that it will take more than a civics assessment and civics project to make necessary changes in how we can improve civic knowledge, understanding, and virtue among the next generation. It requires the commitments from superintendents of schools, principals—especially elementary principals, school committees and school boards, and the communities. That said, a civics assessment is certainly a welcomed and good start. This is only the beginning.
Image: Pencil and test paper. Original public domain image from Wikimedia Commons; https://www.rawpixel.com/image/3338154
Read Teachers have 2 hours a week to teach Social Studies, prepare informed citizens from The74.com
Read Social studies education facing ‘crisis’ as class time is slashed, departments closed from The Washington Post
See How social studies improve elementary literacy from National Council for the Social Studies and Thomas B. Fordham Institute. (PDF download)
Read The Necessity of Education in a Republican Government, by Horace Mann (1839)