Virginia schools: 3rd-graders know more history than college grads

John Ryan Contributor
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Several Charlottesville, Virginia-area elementary schools have filed official public reports that appear to falsify students’ scores.

The reports claim that from 2011-2013, on average 80 percent or more of their third-graders passed the Virginia Standards of Learning (SoLs) for historical knowledge. But even graduates of America’s top colleges and universities do not possess the historical knowledge that these school are reporting four-fifths of its 8- and 9-year olds have.

Virginia’s SoLs for third-graders declare that the student should be able to perform the following tasks (among others), presumably as a condition of graduating to the fourth grade:

• The student will explain how the contributions of ancient Greece and Rome have influenced the present world in terms of architecture, government (direct and representative democracy), and sports.
• Describe the individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and equality under the law.
• Recognize that Americans are… united by the basic principles of a republican form of government and respect for individual rights and freedoms.
• Explain how producers in ancient Greece, Rome, and the West African empire of Mali used natural resources, human resources, and capital resources in the production of goods and services.
• Describ[e] the accomplishments of Christopher Columbus, Juan Ponce de León, Jacques Cartier, and Christopher Newport.

The SoLs don’t say the student should have to pass a multiple-choice test about these facts and concepts. Rather, they say the student should be able to “explain” and “describe” them — meaning that one should be able to sit down with a student and say, “Johnny, tell me about the basic principles and origins of our republican form of government that the U.S. Constitution was crafted to facilitate, and how it was influenced by the ancient Greeks and Romans.”

From 2011-2013, Woodbrook Elementary School in Charlottesville, Va. has filed public reports that claim an average of 80 percent or more of its third-graders pass the Virginia SoLs for history. Another Charlottesville-area elementary school, Stone Robinson, reported even higher scores among its third-graders on the history portion of the SOLs. Still another area school, Brownsville Elementary, reports similarly stellar history knowledge among its third-graders.

Recent surveys, however, demonstrate that the vast majority of America adults, and even college graduates, could not pass the Virginia SoLs for third-graders:

• Nearly half of college graduates don’t know that the Constitution establishes a separation of powers among the branches of the federal government.
• Less than one in five college graduates can correctly identify the functional differences between the free market and a government-controlled economy.
More than half of high school students believe America fought on the same side as one or more of the Axis powers in World War II.
Fewer than one in five adults can identify two rights stated in the Declaration of Independence.

The United States’ elected U.S. politicians (at all levels) are shown to be even less knowledgeable about history and civics than the general public:

• Nearly three in 10 cannot name one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.
• Nearly 80 percent don’t know that the First Amendment expressly prohibits the federal government from establishing an official religion.
• More than half are unaware that the Constitution gives only Congress the power to declare war.
• Less than one-third can correctly describe the free-market system.

Phil Giaramita, the public affairs and strategic communications officer of the Albemarle County School system, which governs all three schools, was asked via email to comment on this discrepancy. He replied:

[T]he SOL questions come from the state as does the curriculum and they are the product of a statewide review team of educators. On occasion, Albemarle County has had a representative on that team but that is not a regular occurrence.

More importantly, we long have had issues with SOL tests in elementary schools, especially in recent years when the tests have required young students to spend up to three hours to complete. We do not believe that is fair or helpful. We have had discussions with state legislators about the need to reform SOL tests and there is a proposed change that would eliminate some of these tests. It’s an encouraging start but hardly sufficient.

The state education department is well aware of our differences with SOLs and our view that there should be alternative assessments that a school division should be able to use. We did get legislation proposed last year in Richmond that would provided some help but the bill was introduced too late in the session to gain traction. We will continue to support the need for alternative assessments to the SOL.

When asked in a follow-up about the apparent discrepancy between young children’s scores and educated adults’ scores, Giaramita did not reply.

John Ryan is a pen name.

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John Ryan