Why is the state not implementing the MCAS for U.S. history?

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We are in the middle of a U.S. Senate campaign and, while passions may run high on both sides of the partisan divide, what is a young Massachusetts student to think of the race?

Given his or her ignorance of the role of a senator, whether in Massachusetts state government or at the federal level, the fact is he or she is unlikely to think beyond the partisan commentary that populates television and the internet.

That is a shame and sadly ironic in Massachusetts where state Senate leadership was the driving force, behind the landmark 1993 Education Reform Act (MERA), which has brought many benefits to our students and to the state.

In 1993, as former Senate President Tom Birmingham reminds us,

Before the passage of the Education Reform Act, there were two state imposed requirements to receive a diploma in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: one year of American history and four years of gym. This was certainly more a tribute to the lobbying prowess of gym teachers than to any coherent pedagogical theory. But the absence of a comprehensive statewide system of standards imposed real hardships on poor and minority school districts, which were not only under-funded but also afflicted with society’s low expectations as to what their kids could learn.

The MERA changed all that, with world-class academic standards established in the coming years for English language arts, mathematics, science and U.S. history.

With steady leadership to uphold the promise of MERA’s “grand bargain,” funding increases were combined with high academic standards, tests to ensure that teachers had mastery of the content, student tests to ensure that schools and districts were making the grade, and parental choice in the form of charter schools. The landmark reform translated into some of the nation’s largest gains in student performance—for all students.

The rise in Massachusetts’ performance can be encapsulated in two ways: In 1993, we were around 10th or 11th place in the country on national assessments; since 2005 we have been first. In 2007, Massachusetts students scored in the top six countries in math and science on the most reputable international test in those fields; our 8th graders tied for 1st place.

We have not seen similar progress in U.S. history. On the civics portion of the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, only seven percent of America’s eighth graders could correctly identify the three branches of our government.

Massachusetts students do not excel in their knowledge of U.S. history either. Yet, in 2009, Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education postponed a requirement that Massachusetts public school students pass a U.S. history MCAS test to graduate from high school. History had been slated to join English language arts, mathematics, and science as a graduation requirement beginning with the class of 2012.

Commissioner Chester has repeatedly cited the prohibitive cost of administering the tests. A recent poll of state legislators shows that they disagree. More than two-thirds (68 percent) of those surveyed said it is possible to find the $2.4 million needed within the $4.5 billion annual state budget for K-12 public education.

Without a test in place to ensure accountability, in the past few years we have seen entire middle school social studies departments eliminated, and history courses now being taught by English, math, and science teachers.

Kids need more than facts and figures, or even a general ability to read and write. While many bemoan the lack of a sense of “civic engagement” on the p[art of younger people, the fact is that all that must start with knowledge and respect for the remarkable democratic institutions that have been the bulwark of our success as a state and as a country for over 200 years.

A strong grounding in our own history allows for better citizen engagement. And it is as important to the Commonwealth’s educational goals as is the study of literature, math and science.

Testing U.S. history it is not only critical to improving kids’ knowledge of their institutions, it is the law of the land.

Crossposted at Boston.com’s Rock the Schoolhouse. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.