Op-ed: State should revive US history requirement

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By Michael Dukakis and Thomas Birmingham

Versions of this op-ed have appeared in The Boston Globe, New Bedford Standard Times, MetroWest Daily News, Milford Daily News, Springfield Republican, and The Berkshire Eagle

A basic purpose of American public education is to teach students how to exercise the rights and responsibilities associated with active citizenship in a democracy, but national testing shows that it just isn’t happening. To change that, Massachusetts should revive the requirement that public school students pass a US history MCAS test to graduate from high school.

According to 2014 results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a mere 27 percent of American eighth-graders scored proficient or better in geography. The numbers were worse for civics (23 percent) and US history (18 percent).

Massachusetts’ 1993 Education Reform Act was not overly prescriptive when it came to what subjects should be taught, but it did require students to learn about the principles of American democracy, including the fundamentals of the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. To ensure that, it required that they pass a US history test as a condition of high school graduation.

Massachusetts’ highly rated history standards and test had been developed and were ready to be implemented when the Patrick administration jettisoned the requirement in 2009, citing the $2.4 million cost of administering the test. Thankfully, the Commonwealth has a lot more fiscal flexibility now than it did then, and there is no reason why we can’t deploy the test at a reasonable cost.

It’s often said that what isn’t tested isn’t taught. Unfortunately, that appears to be the case when it comes to US history education in Massachusetts’ public schools. Entire middle-school social studies departments have been eliminated, leaving history courses to be taught by English, math, and science teachers.

Massachusetts public schools have much to be proud of over the last two decades. Between 2005 and 2013, the state led the nation at every grade level and every subject tested on the NAEP, which is also known as the “Nation’s Report Card.”

In 2007 and 2013, the Bay State participated as its own “country” on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the gold standard of international math and science testing. Our students proved to be among the best in the world in mathematics, and in 2007 our eighth-graders tied for number one in the world in science.

But that achievement does not extend to US history. The geography, civics, and US history results are not broken down by state in NAEP, but Massachusetts students are routinely outperformed by their counterparts from California, Oregon, Indiana, Virginia, and Alabama in the national “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution” contest. In the contest’s nearly 30-year history, the Commonwealth has never finished among the top 10 states.

When we both were in public service on Beacon Hill, we were acutely aware that state budgets are more than line items and spreadsheets; they are expressions of our values and priorities as a commonwealth. Similarly, public education is not just a way to prepare students to be part of the workforce; it must also prepare them to be active civic participants in America’s great experiment in democracy.

Our students can’t grow up to be active citizens if they don’t understand the ideals upon which our country was founded and the journey that has brought us to where we are today. To avoid that fate, Massachusetts should restore passage of the US MCAS history test as a condition of high school graduation.

Michael Dukakis is former governor of Massachusetts and a professor of political science at Northeastern University. Thomas Birmingham is a former president of the Massachusetts Senate, coauthor of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, and a senior fellow in education at Pioneer Institute.