OXFORD — History was among my favorite subjects in school, and I still read a lot of it.
Given the opportunity — as was the case on a recent trip though the Midwest — I’ll visit a historical museum as my wife and I did in Hannibal, Missouri, where Mark Twain grew up, and in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln is buried and memorialized in a museum and presidential library.
But, to be completely honest, I wasn’t all that good at taking history tests.
At Ole Miss my freshman year, I almost flunked a final exam on history to the surprise of both my professor and me. I had been attentive during class, which I enjoyed, and had done well on pop quizzes. But for some reason I bombed on the final, probably because I thought I knew the subject and didn’t study enough for the test.
So, I know testing isn’t everything in the learning experience.
However, you can still count me against what appears to be the inevitable decision to stop requiring Mississippi high school students pass a U.S. history test in order to graduate.
I’ll be surprised if the state Board of Education doesn’t go along with recommendations from a student testing task force and the state Commission on School Accreditation to scrap the history test.
Earlier this summer, more than 3,100 high school teachers were asked by the education department whether Mississippi should continue the U.S. history end-of-course assessment. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said no.
Had they been polled on the assessment test for algebra, English and biology, the poll results from the teachers — or students and parents for that matter — probably would have been similar.
But end-of-course assessments in those subjects are required by state and federal law, unlike history which is only required by board policy.
Teachers and others have been complaining about what they claim is too much standardized testing in public schools for the past several years.
There are 14 assessments for students in grades K-12 that are required by state or federal law or state Board of Education policy.
Critics say some teachers, under pressure to show good results, spend too much time “teaching to the test” rather than giving students a deeper understanding of the subject.
Also, they assert, tests can create major stress when students feel pressure to do well on tests, thus developing a negative attitude toward school. Another criticism is that standardized tests evaluate student performance without taking into consideration external factors such as home life and background and the fact that some people are just better at taking tests than others.
Granted, there may be too much focus on testing these days, but I can’t think of a better way to measure student achievement and set benchmarks for improvement.
As for “teaching to the test,” that is at least teaching something, and I wonder if such exercises don’t have more value than the critics claim.
There has to be some way to measure how much students have learned before they are certified as high school graduates.
The pros and cons of standardized testing aside, the main reason I’m against eliminating the history test — while the others are maintained — is the real possibility that the study of history and social studies will be de-emphasized more than is already occurring.
John Paul Mistilis, a U.S history teacher at Oxford High School, as well as a member of the Commission on School Accreditation, was quoted in one newspaper article as saying that, although he voted no on the poll, he and other U.S history teachers have concerns about nixing the exam.
“We feel it’s a double-edged sword,” Mistilis said. “We feel that the only thing that makes social studies significant or looked at as being important is the fact that it is tested. And our theory is that if the test goes away, then the importance of social studies will eventually go away with it.”
If that happens, it will be a further dumbing down of the Mississippi education system.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr., an Afro-Jamaican political activist, publisher, journalist and entrepreneur before his death in 1940, had it right when he said: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
• Charles M. Dunagin is the retired editor and publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb. He lives in Oxford.