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Posted at 8:00 PM ET, 02/20/2011

A state test teachers want to save

By Jay Mathews

I don’t necessarily accept the view that people who say they speak for teachers actually do. But they often have a good sense of faculty room opinion, including the fact that many teachers don’t like the state tests that have been imposed on them and their students.

So what should I make of the e-mails that have been coming in from teachers all over Maryland begging that the state NOT carry out its plan to cancel the annual High School Assessment test in government?

The government test, which costs $1.9 million a year to administer, is being cut because federal rules don’t require it, and Maryland needs to avoid a deficit.

Some teachers see less innocent motives: “It says to me that there are powerful political and bureaucratic forces that do not want our citizens educated enough to threaten their personal power,” said S. Jacob Spiese III, a social studies teacher in Washington County.

Sandra Dawes, a parent and teacher in Calvert County, said “civic education . . . offers a base from which our children will learn the elements of democracy.” Teacher and lawyer Margaret Land said her children went into public service because of a great 11th-grade government course. “Rarely do I come across a school mission statement that does not contain the goal to educate students to become informed and productive citizens,” she said. Without the requirement that students pass the test, there will less studying of our government.

We cringe when Jay Leno asks who ran for president in the last election and gets blank looks from otherwise intelligent young adults. I am not sure that American-in- the-street ignorance of public affairs is curable. Some say we learned more in the old days, but surveys dating back to the 19th century suggest otherwise. It appears that even if we pass tests in school, we don’t retain material that doesn’t interest us.

Still, a significant minority of Americans, certainly a larger portion of the population than in most countries, take seriously a citizen’s duty to understand our democracy. Downgrading the importance of civics in Maryland seems wrong to me. Education Week ranks its education system No. 1. It is the home of many of the federal government employees who populate this region. Maryland school officials say they are confident government teachers and students will still do well without the test, but I am not so sure.

The dispute shows that teachers do not necessarily resist state tests in general, but don’t like being forced to prepare for those that don’t make sense to them. Maryland’s social studies teachers have many complaints about the HSA government exam, but those who wrote to me say it is better than not having a test.

It helps them motivate students to focus on the Constitution, political parties and community values at a time when American teenagers have other interests. For a while they have to think about this stuff. For some, it sinks in.

Social studies was my favorite subject in high school. I majored in government in college. My newspaper focuses on politics. I cover public schools. But it is not just me and my journalist friends and relatives who are into this.

I sense a yearning in the country to know more about how government decisions are made. How do you otherwise explain the big cable TV ratings for political shows, and the passion with which all kinds of Americans argue about health care, taxes and immigration?

Maybe those of us Marylanders who believe we must give teachers every chance to implant democratic values should pass the hat to keep the exam alive. Let’s ask Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart to address a joint fundraiser. The University of Maryland’s Byrd Stadium would be a good venue. Beck, Stewart and other famous talking heads say they abhor ignorance of our politics. This would help that cause.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | February 20, 2011; 8:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart, Maryland state High School Assessment government test, government teachers want to keep government test, let's raise money to save test, test canceled to save money  
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This is one Maryland High School teacher of LSN Government who will be happy to see the test gone. Heck, one year I had 10 students pass the test who failed all 4 quarters with me. If I am not constrained by preparing the students for the test I can actually have them learn much more intelligently. Besides, the quality of the tests sucks - questions with no correct answer, or more than one correct answer, weird distribution of questions across the testable content, etc.

On a different note, so when are you moving to California? Inquiring minds want to know. Blame Jo-Ann for the question: I met her at the EWA-Carnegie event on Friday.

Posted by: teacherken | February 20, 2011 9:37 PM | Report abuse

Are you sure they want to know or rather know who to blame? How many people vote after high school and at what age do we see the population massing for votes?

Most youngsters I graduated with I would bet had little to do with politics. We could barely muster a crowd for campus issues in high school.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 21, 2011 5:48 AM | Report abuse

I, too, attended the Education Writers Association conference on Friday. We had a lively discussion about the impact of standardized tests when assessing student achievement. Personally, I would like to think that state tests are not required in order to motivate students, though they can provide a nice incentive to learn key facts I suppose.

As for Jay Leno's hilarious man-on-the-street questions, I will never forget the clean-shaven young man who could not answer "What was the first name of President George Washington?"

Happy Presidents' Day! For more about the conference, please visit my blog at

Posted by: dcproud1 | February 21, 2011 7:09 AM | Report abuse

While a government test is a good idea, it is like all Maryland's HSA. Passing the test is not required for graduation as the student may do a simple project consisting of "busy work." Until such time as students are actually required to pass the HSA tests to graduate what real difference does it make to have such tests except to create the illusion students must pass these tests?

Posted by: mrshannon | February 21, 2011 7:44 AM | Report abuse

It seems to me that two important questions are raised by the proposal to scrap the Maryland government exam, which some consider a proxy for citizenship readiness. It isn’t.

That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be some kind of an assessment for government, or better yet, for something called democratic citizenship.

The questions are (1) what is the purpose of public education, and (2) what are schools for? There are multiple “answers” posed by “reformers,” but the real insight goes back millennia.

Education is a democratic society has a special place and purpose. Aristotle grasped this more than two thousand years ago in arguing for a system of public education in Athens, saying that "education should be one and the same for all...public, and not private." 

Aristotle perceived the importance of public schooling to democratic citizenship, noting that "each government has a peculiar character...the character of democracy creates democracy, and the character of oligarch creates oligarchy, and always the better the character, the better the government."

In America after the Revolution early state constitutions, like those of Massachusetts (1780) and New Hampshire (1784) set up and stressed the importance of a system of public education. The Land Ordinance of 1785 provided for public school financing in new territories. In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson sought a publicly-funded system of schools, believing that an educated citizenry was critical to the well-being of a democratic society. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1794), Jefferson wrote “The influence over government must be shared along all men.”

In the early years of the republic, George Washington, Jefferson, Horace Mann and other early advocates for public schools agreed that democratic citizenship was a primary function of education.

There’ve long been squabbles over how best to educate the “democratic citizen,” one who understood and was committed to the core values and principles of democratic governance; one who was embued with the “character of democracy.” And, over time, there are indeed certain people and groups and special interests who’ve felt threatened by education for “the masses.” Knowledge can be power.

The current reform mania, focused on content and testing is characteristic of what’s called the “citizenship transmission,” or “tell-‘em-and-test-‘em” model. It assumes that students learn content and become informed, participating members of their country. It has a very long track record of failure.

So, if we basically know the answers to the first two questions, and we do, then the critical next questions are what would “reform” look like if we wished to return schools to their original citizenship education mission, and what is the better or best way to educate for democratic citizenship?

Posted by: DrDemocracy | February 21, 2011 8:25 AM | Report abuse

I think being able to correctly answer at least 75% of the questions on the U.S. citizenship test should be a requirement for earning a high school diploma. It really isn't that hard a test:

Posted by: CrimsonWife | February 21, 2011 8:32 AM | Report abuse

DrDemocracy gives us one of the more thoughtful comments I have seen on this page. Astonishingly, he makes his point not by insisting on his view, but suggesting we each think about the historical issues he has raised. I wish I were that deft in my columns. I like CrimsonWife's citizenship test for everyone very much. I wonder what percent of those questions citizen applicants have to answer to pass.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 21, 2011 10:23 AM | Report abuse

One interesting observation regarding the citizenship test relates to question number 68, "What is one thing that Benjamin Franklin is famous for?" Are the noted various correct answers the only ones accepted? Is it really possible that if one answered, the inventor of the lightning rod, that the answer would be counted wrong? The lightning rod made him famous in the US and indeed around the world; he received much recognition for the saving of saving of many lives and much property. Having read about the notoriety in detail (the passages in one of our old books), it saddens me that the text book-style teachings of today leave so much information to the wayside. Well written books full of richness, ah...

The link below is to an article in the journal, Physics Today, from 2006. See what John Adams said of Franklin and the lightning rod (pages 47 and 48). Fascinating.

Posted by: shadwell1 | February 21, 2011 11:21 AM | Report abuse

The requirement for would-be citizens is answering correctly 6 out of 10 but surely a high school diploma ought to merit a higher cutoff.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | February 21, 2011 11:52 AM | Report abuse

I think that the real reason many social studies teachers are against this is because getting rid of this graduation requirement will put social studies departments in the same boat as arts/music/technology now... put on the back burner so we can focus on subjects that "matter"

Posted by: someguy100 | February 21, 2011 5:26 PM | Report abuse

I would not argue that literacy (reading and writing) and numeracy do not "matter." Nor would I say that about music and art and physical education. In fact, they matter a lot.

However, they should be part and parcel of the larger mission of public schooling, which is citizenship education. And what could be more important in a democratic republic than to promote the "character of democracy?"

We generally know what doesn't work well in education (and we generally know what does). One of the most serious problems facing public school educators is that they keep getting fed a steady diet of what doesn't work along with more requirements and pressure to make it work. If it weren't so egregiously illogical and harmful, it'd be funny.

As to that citizenship test and its passing score, it doesn't really matter. Maryland can give the test, and raise or lower the passing score a bit, but all that does is establish a minimal knowledge competency (if it can even be called that) for government (civics).

"Answering correctly" is very different from being able to evaluate the merits of a policy. Different from understanding and believing in the values and principles of democratic governance. Different from perceiving the interconnection between rights and responsibilities. It's very different from developing the "character of democracy."

Posted by: DrDemocracy | February 22, 2011 7:20 AM | Report abuse

While I do believe that the things Dr. Democracy mentions in his/her last paragraph are important, I don't think it's the school's job to be trying to change students' values. That smacks of indoctrination. But schools *CAN* make sure that their students have an understanding of basic history and civics prior to receiving their diplomas.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | February 22, 2011 12:24 PM | Report abuse

I am very curious as to which core democratic values CrimsonWife objects to....

The commonly-cited core democratic values, gleaned from the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration, Pledge of Allegiance, National Amnthem, and other amendments are these:

popular sovereignty, freedom(s), equality, justice, tolerance, dignity and worth of each person, promoting the general welfare

So, which one or ones are objectionable?

And, if most of the people in a democratic society DISbelieve in its core values and principles (which is their right), then what happens to that society?

And, what is the role in public education in assimilating future citizens into a democratic society?

I do eagerly await a response....

Posted by: DrDemocracy | February 23, 2011 7:37 AM | Report abuse

I don't believe it's the school's job to be indoctrinating students into the "politically correct" version of those values. In particular, "equality", "tolerance", and "dignity and worth of each person" are likely to be interpreted quite differently by individuals depending on their political leanings. The schools should stick to teaching basic history and civics and leave the teaching of values to parents and clergy.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | February 25, 2011 2:43 AM | Report abuse

And for an example of how different individuals hold different values, I personally would've named other things as "core principles" of our country: liberty, self-sufficiency, individualism, personal responsibility, hard work, loyalty/patriotism, optimism about the future, etc.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | February 25, 2011 2:54 AM | Report abuse

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