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The old saw about those who don't know history being doomed to repeat it could literally happen to students in Richmond Public Schools.

Don't Know Much about History

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What practice in schools was eliminated by the Brown vs. Board of Education decision? What did people call the American colonists who opposed separation from Britain? If you don't know the answer to these questions you're in company that includes hundreds of public high school students in Richmond.

In the spring 2000 Standards of Learning (SOL) social studies tests only 27.4 percent of Richmond high school students passed the Word History/Geography tests. Students fared even worse in U.S. history with only a 15.6 percent passage rate. While Richmond Community High School was the winner in U. S. history with a score of 95.6 percent, not a single student passed the test at Wythe, Armstrong, and Franklin. Marshall, Kennedy, and Huguenot hit a sub-10 percent passage rate on the test.

Henrico and Chesterfield have yet to release their 2000 scores, but their 1999 social studies numbers were 55.13 and 56.28. The county schools' numbers are clearly better, but they are still several points from the 70 percent passage rate that is required for a school to continue to receive accreditation.

Richmond City fared better this year on the tests overall with half of the 52 schools registering double-digit test-score gains. Richmond Community High School hit the accreditation level in all subject areas. Two other schools — Fox Elementary and Munford Elementary — were only two points shy of the mark.

But even with the general upswing in numbers, the social studies scores reveal a district where many students don't know much about history. Unfortunately this ignorance of the past could affect the school system's future.

In 2007 schools that do not hit a 70-percent passing rate in the four main subject areas will lose accreditation.

Cameron Harris, Virginia Department of Education assistant superintendent for assessment and reporting, said that she expects most schools to meet these standards.

"It's a rigid requirement," Harris said. "But we've had these standards since 1995. It wasn't something we cooked up last week. We hope that we don't have to face very much of that (schools not meeting requirements)."

While failure to meet the passing scores will hurt schools, they will also mar individual student transcripts. Starting in 2004 students who do not pass six of the 12 SOL tests in the areas of English, math, science and social studies will not receive a standard diploma. Instead, they will receive a certificate of completion, a mark on a transcript that will hardly be impressive to colleges. Students who pass nine of the tests will receive an advanced diploma.

Many schools have or are on track to pass the English and science tests. But the social studies test is quickly turning into a roadblock on the highway to school accreditation.

Why are the social studies tests so difficult for students to pass?

Hugh West, chair of the history department at University of Richmond, says that the social studies tests are tremendous challenges for many students because the study of history requires students to know an enormous number of facts. While a student can navigate a math, science or English test by applying general concepts, there is no substitute for knowing an important date or the name of a major world leader.

"In the case of history he (the student) may have a good grasp of Andrew Jackson but not Andrew Johnson," West says. "You need the facts. There may be three facts on the test that didn't pass under his nose."

While social studies scores are almost never the highest of SOL scores, they are even lower in urban school districts. West says upper-income people tend to have a stronger appreciation of history.

"An appreciation of history requires some comfort," West says. "It's hard to think about it if you're thinking about income and what your career is."

In many cases lower-income students are members of a minority group. Minorities often see little connection between what is taught in a standard history class, which generally focuses on the achievements of white men, and what is happening in their lives and their culture, West says.

"One reason (they don't do well) is they're not being told the story that's of interest to them," West says.

While poor secondary-school history scores may seem alarming, and the scores do have a serious impact on school accreditation, West cautions against viewing these test scores as a true sign of how much history Americans know and how much interest Americans have in the study of the past. West points to the large number of history course offerings in higher education and the large membership in historical societies as signs of a country that is filled with aficionados of history.

"I don't think that this country has ever not had a sense of its history," West says. "If you look at the profession of history there are infinitely more history professors and courses than in Europe. We're the only country that teaches everyone's history. In Germany they only teach German history."

While test scores may not be an accurate reflection of what students know, they are important to educators. Teachers and administrators are making a serious effort to bring these numbers up with the aid of the Virginia Department of Education, according to Superintendent Harris.

The SOL Training Initiative, which was started 1997, supplies money to schools so that they can train their social studies teachers to meet the needs of their students. On the primary level the state is focusing on reading skills because they realize that a more literate student will have an easier time with the study of history, Harris says.

This school year also marked the first time that social studies instructors used a teacher's guide designed by the state.

"It narrows down the information that is necessary," she says. "Using this guide will bring the scores up."

Sample questions from the World History Standards of Learning test:

Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Germany was most helped by the -
A. refusal to admit Germany as a member of the League of Nations
B. violent protests against Germany by France and Great Britain
C. strong support for his radical policies by the Social Democratic leaders in the Reichstag
D. feelings of resentment and nationalism caused by economic and political crises

During the Civil War, the North had advanatges over the South in all of those categories except —
A miles of railroads
B. military leadership
C. industrial output
D military-age population

Which of the following compromises helped ensure Southern support for the proposed Constitution?
A. Creating a bicameral legislature with a House and a Senate
B. Allowing the perpetual importation of slaves
C. Counting three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of representation
D. Enacting a high tariff to support the cotton industry

Answers: 1-D, 2-B, 3-C

The 12 Secondary SOL Tests

English Reading and Literature
Writing
US History
World History I
World History II
World Geography
Algebra I
Algebra II
Geometry
Earth Science
Chemistry

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