by John Ryan
Several Charlottesville, VA-area elementary schools have filed official public reports that claim from 2011-2013, on average 80% or more of their third-graders pass the Virginia Standards of Learning (SoLs) for historical knowledge. A closer analysis reveals, however, that not only is this claim dubious, surveys show that even graduates of America’s top colleges and universities do not possess the historical knowledge that these schools report that four out of five of their 8- and 9-year-olds do.
Virginia’s SoLs for third-graders declare that the student should be able to perform the following tasks (among others), presumably as a condition of graduating to the fourth grade:
- “The student will explain how the contributions of ancient Greece and Rome have influenced the present world in terms of architecture, government (direct and representative democracy), and sports.”
- “Describe the individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and equality under the law.”
- “Recognize that Americans are… united by the basic principles of a republican form of government and respect for individual rights and freedoms.”
- “Explain how producers in ancient Greece, Rome, and the West African empire of Mali used natural resources, human resources, and capital resources in the production of goods and services.”
- “Describ[e] the accomplishments of Christopher Columbus, Juan Ponce de León, Jacques Cartier, and Christopher Newport.”
Note that the SoLs don’t say the student should have to pass a multiple-choice test about these facts and concepts. Rather, they say the student should be able to “explain” and “describe” them – meaning that one should be able to sit down with a student and say, “Johnny, tell me about the basic principles and origins of our republican form of government that the U.S. Constitution was crafted to facilitate, and how it was influenced by the ancient Greeks and Romans.”
The reported achievement of area 3rd-graders, versus numerous surveys of adults and college graduates
Recent surveys, however, demonstrate that the vast majority of America adults, and even college graduates, could not pass the VA SoLs for third-graders:
- Nearly half of college graduates don’t know that the Constitution establishes a separation of powers among the branches of the federal government.
- Less than 1 in 5 college graduates can correctly identify the functional differences between the free market and a government-controlled economy.
- More than half of high-school students believe America fought on the same side as one or more of the Axis powers in World War II.
- Fewer than one in five adults can identify two rights stated in the Declaration of Independence.
Our elected U.S. politicians (at all levels) are shown to be even less knowledgeable about history and civics than the general public:
- Nearly three in ten cannot name one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.
- Nearly 80% don’t know that the First Amendment expressly prohibits the federal government from establishing an official religion.
- More than half are unaware that the Constitution gives only Congress the power to declare war.
- Less than one-third can correctly describe the free-market system.
Phil Giaramita, the Public Affairs and Strategic Communications Officer of the Albemarle County School system, which governs all three schools, was asked via email to comment on this discrepancy. His response (in total):
[T]he SOL questions come from the state as does the curriculum and they are the product of a statewide review team of educators. On occasion, Albemarle County has had a representative on that team but that is not a regular occurrence.
More importantly, we long have had issues with SOL tests in elementary schools, especially in recent years when the tests have required young students to spend up to three hours to complete. We do not believe that is fair or helpful. We have had discussions with state legislators about the need to reform SOL tests and there is a proposed change that would eliminate some of these tests. It’s an encouraging start but hardly sufficient.
The state education department is well aware of our differences with SOLs and our view that there should be alternative assessments that a school division should be able to use. We did get legislation proposed last year in Richmond that would provided some help but the bill was introduced too late in the session to gain traction. We will continue to support the need for alternative assessments to the SOL.
In response, the following questions were emailed to him:
According to anyone who looks up the achievement statistics from Albemarle County elementary schools, it makes it appear – on official documents – that four in five third-graders know more about history, economics, civics, political theory, etc. than recent surveys demonstrate that about 98% of adults do, including most college graduates. Could you please shed light on that issue, particularly?
Also, would Albemarle County be willing to allow a representative sampling of its third-graders to be tested according to the specific criteria of the SOLs, in another environment, supervised by both Albemarle County and independent assessors?
Giaramita did not reply to this email.
Amidst all this murkiness, one fact is clear: it is now up to the citizens of Albemarle County to decide what to do next – whether to (a) accept what would appear to be an egregiously fraudulent academic achievement system, or (b) find a way to put these supposedly super-literate third-graders to the test, and see if they can actually pass what the SOLs dictate.
[This piece originally appeared at The Daily Caller. John Ryan is a nom de plume.]