Wide-ranging history exam causes students to stumble, teachers say

rheaton@beaufortgazette.comOctober 7, 2012 

What did the Mexican Cession, "Bleeding Kansas" and John Brown's Raid have in common? What do you know about social Darwinism? The U.S. Constitution? Operation Desert Storm?

At the end of each school year, Beaufort County students -- usually high school juniors -- put what they've learned in a yearlong U.S. history course, covering material from the founding of the colonies to the 21st century, to the test. State law requires students to take a 55-question, multiple choice exam that accounts for 20 percent of their final grades.

The results in Beaufort County and around the state have been abysmal.

This year, Beaufort County students averaged 70.1 percent, a "D." And 52.1 percent received an "F" -- a 69 percent or lower.

Results across the state are similarly low. The scores were the lowest of all similar end-of-course exams that test students' knowledge in benchmark courses such as algebra, English and biology.

The statewide average on the U.S. History and Constitution end-of-course exam was 71.2 percent this year, barely higher than the 2011 average of 71 percent. Nearly half -- 47.2 percent -- failed.

By comparison, the state average on the algebra exam was 81 percent and was 78.2 percent on the English test.

Despite the low bar in history, that end-of-course exam was the only one on which local students didn't beat state averages this year.

Why?

Teachers say a state policy against releasing previous tests makes it difficult for them to help students prepare. Further, the test covers Columbus' arrival in 1492, the current conflict in Afghanistan and just about everything in between -- a wide swath that must be covered in a single year.

"It's not an easy test," said Charlie Holbrook, a U.S. history teacher at Beaufort High School. "It can have pretty specific questions."

Holbrook added that students who don't read well or who don't have a strong vocabulary faces a further hindrance -- for example, they might not know what "advocate" means, which means they can't answer a question containing that word.

Holbrook said he's seen the test dock students' grades over the years -- even a student with an "A" average who misses just a few questions can see his or her 4.0 disappear.

Since the test was first administered in 2009, Beaufort County students' average scores have risen from 68.1 percent. The first year the test was given, nearly 63 percent of students failed, and only 1 percent of the nearly 1,300 test takers got an "A." This year, 3 percent of the 927 test takers earned an "A."

That's progress, district social studies coordinator Jennifer Woods said. But much more is needed.

To that end, changes are on the way.

Some are simple fixes, such as making sure all tests given in U.S. history courses are cumulative, so students have to remember material from previous lessons. Woods said students also will take a "benchmark test" about halfway through the year, and teachers will identify areas in which students are falling short.

Woods hopes the changes work.

"I'm looking for growth," she said. "I do not want to be below the state average. I would like to be competitive with the other (end-of-course exam) results."

So would teachers. Both Holbrook and Bluffton High School U.S. history teacher Erin Reichert said they're optimistic students will show gains in 2013.

Reichert had another suggestion: Release past tests so teachers can better prepare their students. Holbrook and Woods agreed that would help.

"It's kind of a mystery," Reichert said. "There's not a lot of documents to support how we're supposed to be teaching it."

A state Department of Education official said releasing past tests is unlikely. Unlike the groups that administer advanced-placement and SAT tests, the state department has a long-standing policy of not releasing sample test questions. That would mean more questions have to be written, which means spending more money.

"It's a test security issue, but it's also a real cost issue," department spokesman Jay W. Ragley said.

Ragley said the department recently reduced its number of standards for the history course, and students are expected to know more about those that remain.

But Woods said the standards are still broad.

"Say we're studying the Articles of Confederation. According to the state pacing guide, one day should be dedicated to that," Woods said. "But they expect us to teach 23 things about it."

To help with that, the district is beginning to teach some concepts in earlier related classes. Ninth-graders in a civics course may learn about Jeffersonian democracy so that when it comes up again two years later, it's not new to them.

Holbrook said he thinks test-preparation software the district adopted a few years ago will continue to help. He's relied heavily on it and uses some of its questions on his students' tests.

Doing so has helped boost scores, he believes. Beaufort High topped a 50 percent pass rate this year. But he'll keep pushing for more.

"We haven't been that lofty before, but we're not dizzy from the heights," he said. "The teachers are plugging away."

Related content:

Beaufort County School District tops SC averages in three of four end-of-course exams; Oct. 2, 2012

Beaufort County School District 2012 end-of-course exam results

End-of-course exam results since 2007

U.S. History and Constitutation end-of-course exam teacher's guide

U.S. History and Constitutution state standards

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