A few days back I was in a rollicking debate with Marc Aronson at his blog over the recently released results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), this one focusing on history. Disgusted by the 4th grade test I wrote in one of several comments:
I’ve been studying the questions for the fourth grade test and they got me crazy. I want to know at one point in the school year the test was given, did the kids study, etc etc. As for the Chicken Little “The sky is falling because they don’t know what Lincoln did” business, as Gary Nash and others have pointed out in various publications over the years, it was ever thus.
My curriculum is history-centered, but it is deep engagement and not the sort of superficial kind those fourth graders would have had to do well on that assessment. Teaching to this particular test isn’t going to make for better citizens, people, etc etc that I assume is what people want in the long run (or do they just want kids to be able to say what Thanksgiving is about evermore)?
I have not noticed a focus anywhere on memorizing and retention of facts when people fuss about schooling today. Some of the questions actually asked the kids to think, but far too many of them are simplistic fact-based ones.
At my school teachers sometimes express SHOCK when a class of fourth graders doesn’t know something in history, say indeed details about Lincoln, and my response is why should they? We don’t do a massive US history survey in third or fourth grade where they’d be exposed to Lincoln and I bet even if we did there still be many who wouldn’t remember. In my opinion what would make them remember would be the sort of deep engagement Myra [Zarnowski] is talking about and that ain’t gonna happen if they have to be ready for a test with questions such as these.
And so I’m now gratified to see Nick Paumgarten’s equally skeptical take on it in The New Yorker with the money quote from one of my favorite thinkers about kids and historical thinking:
“We haven’t ever known our past,” Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, said last week. “Your kids are no stupider than their grandparents.”