- The Washington Times - Friday, May 29, 2009

RICHMOND | Virginia is considering eliminating its standardized history and social studies examination for third-graders so schools can focus their resources on improving reading and literacy.

The state Board of Education plans to decide next month whether to cut the third-grade social studies Standards of Learning (SOL) test, starting in the upcoming school year.

At its meeting Thursday, the board heard forceful opposition from numerous speakers who argued that doing so would remove the incentive for schools to make sure that those subjects would be properly taught in early elementary school.

Joe Enedy, a coordinator with the Virginia Geographic Alliance, which promotes geography education, told the board his group is concerned that without a mandatory exam, social-studies teaching for kindergarten through third grade will “be on a piecemeal basis without the hammer of a test.”

Board members acknowledged such concerns, and asked Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright to provide a timetable and a plan to incorporate the social studies content into state reading standards and assessments.

Ms. Wright said the outcry to retain the third-grade history test was heartening, but the decrease in state revenue means that the education department must give some tests a higher priority than others in light of federal educational mandates.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, students must be tested in reading and mathematics in third through eighth grades, and again in high school.

Ninety-three percent of Virginia’s public third-graders passed the history and social studies exam last year, while 84 percent passed reading - figures that Ms. Wright said highlight the need to emphasize reading and literacy skills. Education Department officials also noted that students already must take four additional history SOL tests, starting in fourth grade, before they reach high school.

“It is one test, and that is absolutely true, but it’s a critical test that captures the measurement of the foundation for social studies in grades K through three,” said Ken Bassett, president of the Virginia Consortium of Social Studies Specialists and College Educators. He acknowledged that some teachers criticize the tests’ multiple-choice format, but he deems it better than no testing.

The proposed change comes in response to a request from school superintendents for the state to identify ways to reduce their testing load — particularly in subject exams not required by the federal government — and is expected to save the state $380,000 a year, according to the Department of Education.

“That’s not a significant cost for accountability for teaching history,” he said.

Virginia is one of a small number of states where public school students must take standardized history tests, which aren’t required under NCLB, and Mr. Bassett said eliminating the third-grade SOL test would reflect “dumbing down the expectations for students.”

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