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In Texas, Fewer Tests Mean Less Time for Teaching Social Studies

Daniel Reese for KUT News

  The reduction in social studies gradation requirements has disappointed many social studies advocates in the state, but it hasn't surprised them. They say the subject often gets pushed aside when it comes to classroom instruction time, especially with an increased emphasis in high-stakes testing.

Unlike math, science and reading, students aren't tested in social studies until eighth grade. Education advocates say lack of social studies standardized tests means less instructional time for the subject.

“It hasn’t been tested," says Pat Hardy, State Board of Education member. "It’s been treated like the redheaded stepchild, and at the end of the day – literally at the end of the day – they’ll say, 'well, you can teach social studies.' Well, how good do you think that is?”

Five years ago, more than 90 percent of Texas eighth graders passed the state social studies test, but when the state changed to a new standardized test (STAAR) scores dropped nearly 30 points. Education leaders say the STAAR test is newer, more difficult, and the passing standard is higher, but Hardy says it also reflects a gradual reduction in social studies instruction.

"Once we went to the STAAR test our true colors showed because nothing had been pushed for those previous so many years," Hardy says.

Between Kindergarten and fifth grade, students get little to no social studies education. 

“The average school day will spend 90 minutes on math, 90 on reading, there’s intervention time and then there’s specials" like music or gym, says Teresa Francis, president of the Texas Social Studies Supervisors Association. “Then there’s typically 45 minutes left in the day for science or social studies.”

Sometimes teachers will try to integrate social studies into reading or language arts, but Francis says that depends on the teacher.

“What’s not tested hasn’t been taught is usually the case," Francis says.

A few years ago, social studies advocates pushed for a social studies standardized test in fifth grade, but stopped because they didn’t want to over-test students. Francis says since students aren't tested in social studies until the end of middle school, there’s no way to know if they are doing well in the subject until they’re essentially heading to high school.

“When you don’t have a test until eighth grade, there’s no data to tell how successful a child is going to be," she says.

Francis expects standardized test scores to improve in social studies as teachers and students get used to the new standardized test. The irony is if students don't improve, it could force school districts to place more emphasis on social studies instruction.

“So there will be an impetus put on social studies where there hasn’t been before," Francis says.

Still, she says the changes in high school social studies requirements don’t bode well for kids at the elementary level. While lawmakers say the new requirements give students more flexibility to prepare for college or a career, Francis says reducing social studies still sends a message.

“When they cut the requirements, that shows everyone that it’s not as important as everything else."

Starting next year, students will need three social studies courses to graduate high school instead of four. 

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