Virginia cuts history tests, potentially leading to disastrous results

The Washington Post’s education columnist, Jay Mathews, is calling out Virginia education officials for doing away with standardized tests on U.S. history, a subject many believe is critical to instilling a sense of citizenship among students.

Mathews explained that Virginia’s Standards of Learning once required exams in U.S. History to 1865 in 5th grade, U.S. History 1865 to Present for middle schoolers, and a high school exam on U.S. and Virginia History.

But the tests were difficult for some students, and the state has eliminated all but the latter in recent decades. Now, the state is expected to kill off the high school history exam, as well, while keeping similar tests for English and math, he wrote.

“Many students scored poorly. At one point, the state school board tried to solve the problem by lowering the passing score, but that didn’t help. In 2014, the Virginia legislature ordered a cut in the number of tests taken by the state’s children, and specifically eliminated the fifth grade and middle school U.S. history tests,” Mathews wrote.

“The U.S. and Virginia history exam in high school is also about to disappear. The history courses remain without the required tests,” he continued. “I predict this will happen in other states, too. Politicians seem to think the best way to reduce testing pressure is to dump tests, no matter how important.”

The shift of focus away from the country’s history follows a trend across the country that’s not only led to embarrassingly uninformed youth, but also the erosion of a shared sense of citizenship and civic engagement that was once a bedrock of American education.

It’s a serious issue that could be leading to other problems discussed in “The Vanishing Center of American Democracy,” a 2016 survey of American political culture conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

“The ‘vital center’ of a hopeful and substantive liberal democracy . . . has all but disappeared, having been depleted through deliberate strategies of oppositional research, disparagement, and political theater that have become the stock and trade of consultants, special interest groups, and political parties,” according to the report.

“It does not go too far to say that a discourse of negation—and the fear, animosity, distrust, and lack of comprehension that it fosters—is the common culture of early twenty-first century American democracy. It hasn’t helped that the mediating institutions directly or indirectly charged with political formation—schools, youth organizations, churches and other institutions of faith, and local political parties—have weakened over the past half century,” it continues.

“For many reasons not of their own making, these institutions have failed to cultivate the shared civic sensibility at the heart of citizenship.”

And the result has not been good.

“In the process, the shared civic dispositions that underwrote and therefore limited political disagreement have not been replenished. Neither has the civility, civic realism, and idealism that accompanies vital democratic practice,” according to the report. “To be sure, the internet and social media have filled the gap, offering a certain kind of political community, along with a voice for many who were voiceless, but it is a weaker form of community, divided into enclaves and built on anonymous ties, with little more than virtual solidarity.”