Dear Abigail on History

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In what is a textbook example of bad policy on the teaching of history, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is signaling that it has no intention of instituting the MCAS requirement for US History.

Currently, the state tests students on three subjects–English Language Arts, Mathematics and Science. In 2009, the US History MCAS requirement was to go into place and three years later, in 2012, graduates were supposed to have passed it. Cue the primary source material–the relevant provision in the regulations (603 CMR 30.03 (4)):

(4) Students starting with the graduating class of 2012, in addition to meeting the requirements contained in 603 CMR 30.02(2) and (3), shall meet or exceed the Needs Improvement scaled score of 220 on the History and Social Science high school MCAS test.*

The asterisk given the provision of the testing regulations came after its postponement in 2009:

* Note to 603 CMR 30.03(4):
On February 24, 2009, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to waive the history and social science requirement for a Competency Determination (603 CMR 30.03(4)) for students in the classes of 2012 and 2013, due to budget constraints. This temporary waiver means that students in the graduating classes of 2012 and 2013 must meet the Competency Determination standards in English language arts, mathematics, and science and technology/engineering, but not history and social science, as a condition of high school graduation. The Board intends to establish a timeline for reinstituting the history and social science requirement for the Competency Determination as expeditiously as possible.

Well, that was a nice stab at explaining the postponement. Groups such as Promise the Children have taken to asking “What would Abigail Adams say?” For Mrs. Adams, this Unitarian Universalist organization hazards, would have opposed the standardized testing of US History, citing her famous urging to John: “I regret the trifling, narrow, contracted education of the females of my own country.” They cite, as the Secretary and Commissioner of Education have a number of times the money argument:

Since the state education budget is being cut, the $2.5 million per year or more that it would cost to administer a Social Studies MCAS will have to come from something else.

But the fact is that the DESE was already discussing pushing back the implementation of the US History MCAS requirement in the run-up to its love affair with so-called “21st Century” skills. That is, well before talk of budget austerity within the Administration. Furthermore, the stance of anti-MCAS groups working with Promise the Children, such as FairTest, ignores the arguments of many history teachers like Roger Desrosiers, who noted in an op-ed in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that

Massachusetts General Laws require the commonwealth’s educational standards to “provide for instruction in at least the major principles of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.” History is the foundation for comprehending government and democracy, then global understanding and cultural competence.

He argues that US History, without a testing requirement, will continue to be “marginalized.” Further, he noted that the postponement due to the $2-plus million cost ignored that “the commonwealth had already invested years of time, effort and money developing and piloting the test. It was ready to be administered.”

Denigrating history and the social sciences will cause students to miss out on important learning that improves our way of life as well as our capacity for self- governance. English, math, and the sciences are all vital to the education of the next generation. But the consequences of shortchanging history and social sciences will be felt by their children and grandchildren.

I was once among those who disagreed with state testing as a sole measure of accountability. However, the reality is simple: If it is not tested, it will not be emphasized and perhaps not even taught.

An amendment to the regulations is being proposed as follows:

(4) Starting in the third consecutive year that the History and Social Science high school assessment is administered, in addition to meeting the requirements contained in 603 CMR 30.02(2) and (3), students shall meet or exceed the passing standard on the History and Social Science high school assessment.

In other words, let’s not say we are not going to implement it, but let’s not implement it. I’d like to think that Mrs. Adams, who also wrote that “Great necessities call out great virtues,” understood very well that tests are an integral part of education and personal growth.

You can submit comments to the department today and tomorrow (May 3 deadline).

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse.