Elementary and middle schoolers in Colorado could stop taking state standardized assessments in social studies starting next year under a bill introduced recently by a group of Democrats in the state legislature, who want to spare Colorado teachers and students the time and stress of testing and save the state more than $1 million each year.
Scrapping social studies would be the latest change to standardized state tests, which have ignited fiery debates among parents, educators and lawmakers, especially in recent years as state testing was paused in 2020 during the pandemic and modified the following year.
The change would also hit a subject that has sparked its own controversies across the state and country, with some parents and critics questioning the ways social studies teachers talk to students about history and the groups of people whose history is covered in class.
In November, the Colorado State Board of Education voted along party lines, 4 to 3, to adopt more inclusive standards for social studies and bring back references to marginalized groups, including Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, Colorado Public Radio reported. The vote came after both public support and opposition, including a failed attempt to instead use the conservative American Birthright social studies standards.
In proposing to do away with social studies tests on state assessments, Sen. Janice Marchman, a Loveland Democrat, aims to ease testing burdens on kids and educators and save the state money for what she sees as more pressing education needs — including paying teachers more and keeping class sizes low.
“It’s hard to do that when we have so many commitments to pay for things like tests,” said Marchman, a prime sponsor of Senate Bill 61. “In my mind, this was low-hanging fruit.”
The state pays Pearson, a global company that provides textbooks, assessments and other education materials, more than $1 million per year for social studies state tests alone, according to Marchman.
Social studies is the only subject that the state mandates students be tested on. The federal government requires students to be assessed on the other subjects that are part of the Colorado Measures of Academic Success — English language arts, mathematics and science.
The state originally required that all students take a state exam in social studies in elementary, middle and high school, according to Jeremy Meyer, spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Education. In 2015, lawmakers passed legislation scaling back social studies testing on state standardized exams, changing the state’s approach to testing so that only a sample of schools would test students in elementary, middle and high school in social studies. The state used a staggered schedule, dividing schools into three groups with each group facilitating social studies state testing once every three years. A 2020 bill passed into law further reduced testing by eliminating social studies state exams for high schoolers altogether.
Students in fourth and seventh grades still technically are required to take state assessments in social studies when their school is up for testing every three years, but the state has halted social studies testing since 2019, in part because testing was paused in 2020 during the pandemic and modified in 2021. The state has continued to suspend testing in social studies in light of social studies standards having to be updated, which was completed with the State Board of Education’s vote in November. All state academic standards are evaluated on a six-year cycle.
Meyer noted that should the state stop testing elementary and middle school students if Senate Bill 61 passes, there would be no impact on school accountability as the exam results are not incorporated into Colorado’s school accountability system.
Marchman, whose career has included working as a middle school gifted and talented teacher and remediating small groups of middle schoolers who need extra help in math, sees an opportunity to lighten students’ testing load and even free them up from a day of exams. Schools often try to spread out testing to help students feel less pressure on state assessments, she said, noting that often means schools devote an additional day to social studies exams for fourth and seventh graders.
Mark Sass, who taught high school social studies for 26 years, most recently at Legacy High School in Broomfield, supports the end of state social studies testing so long as lawmakers are thoughtful about how they spend the savings. He’d like to see at least part of the money directed to CDE to help them find ways to increase participation on state assessments in other subjects, especially science, which has a low participation rate.
“We have to prioritize resources right now,” said Sass, who is executive director of Teach Plus Colorado, which helps teachers inform education policies. “And participation rates with math, English and science as well as social studies were down, and so … if we take this off the table and this then allows districts and schools to be able to increase participation rates in the other exams, then I would say, let’s prioritize that, let’s do that and let’s get rid of the social studies exam.”
But one question hovers top of mind for him.
“How does the state ensure or monitor that districts indeed are using standards that meet or exceed those standards that were set by the state?” Sass asked.
Marchman is confident that district assessments can effectively measure how well students are meeting state standards in social studies. District assessments will have to be tweaked after updates to the state’s social studies standards, and Marchman believes districts can show through their own assessments that they are meeting the revised state standards.
She added that educators have more control over district-level assessments and can better use the results to inform their instruction. Whereas teachers don’t receive CMAS results until the summer after students are tested in the spring, district assessments are graded much quicker. Teachers can use the results to adjust their instruction throughout the school year as they see immediately what concepts students grasp and areas where they lag behind, Marchman said.
Teachers, not outside testing organizations, should take the lead in determining what each student should know by grade level, she said.
“Who better to do that than the teachers who are held accountable to the standards of that grade level?” Marchman asked.
But Sass said that should social studies state tests be pulled, it will be up to each district to decide how they want to test their students. Some districts may not prioritize testing in social studies since it would not be a priority for the state, he said.
State Rep. Meghan Lukens, a Democrat from Steamboat Springs who is co-sponsoring the bill, said tests are an important part of measuring student learning but is adamant that students can benefit long term from other ways of engaging with class material through debates, simulations, mock trials and civic-based projects.
“Social studies is essential to the success of our democracy, and we will still be teaching social studies,” said Lukens, who previously taught social studies for eight years, last at Steamboat Springs High School. “Students will still be learning social studies, and just because students aren’t being tested by a state-mandated assessment doesn’t mean that there won’t be engagement in social studies. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that there are more effective and authentic ways to maximize student engagement in every subject.”
Other lawmakers, however, worry that doing away with social studies state tests will lead Colorado classrooms astray.
“Certainly we’d be moving in the wrong direction,” said Minority Leader Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “I care deeply about democracy. I care deeply about understanding social studies because that helps us understand who we are as a state and as a country and as a people.”
Lundeen noted that this year’s state education budget will total about $15 billion, and that the amount the state would save by axing social studies state exams would be “minuscule” in comparison. Those funds are “well spent,” he said.
Testing is also a critical part of helping students know that they’re actually learning what they set out to, Lundeen said, adding that social studies is one of the “core elements” of education that warrants assessments.
“Testing on social studies demonstrates our commitment to civil society, to understanding civics, to understanding the Constitution, to understanding the rights we have as people,” Lundeen said, “and to turn our back on that is an error.”
This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.