Look at test, teaching to improve performance

Some students failing any test is to be expected. A certain percentage, usually relatively small, isn't prepared for an exam.

But half the students failing a test year after year suggests something is amiss with the test or with the instruction students are getting. That's the case with the state-mandated exam for U.S. History and the Constitution, one of four end-of-course exams high school and some middle-school students take.

For the past four years, a majority of Beaufort County students have failed the end-of-course exam for the history course. In the first two years of the test (2009 and 2010), more than 60 percent failed. The failure rate has been brought down to 52 percent the past two years. An improvement, but hardly anything to cheer about.

Statewide, the failure rate also is high. In 2012, 47 percent of students failed the history exam. Compare that with the algebra, 18.3 percent; biology, 23.7 percent; and English, 26 percent.

For Beaufort County, the 2012 failure rate for the other end-of-course exams was: algebra, 19.3 percent; biology, 17 percent; and English, 25.1 percent.

To look at the results another way, only 24 percent of county students earned higher than a "D" on the history test; 76 percent earned a "D" or an "F." In algebra, 62 percent earned higher than a "D." In biology, 69 percent earned higher than a "D," and in English, 56 percent earned higher than a "D."

Some of the problem may be due to the broad range of subject matter to be covered in the history course, as teachers contend. Fifty-five multiple choice questions covering more than 500 years of history -- from Christopher Columbus to the war in Afghanistan -- leaves a lot of opportunity to skip over or skim something that might be on the test. (How that much material can be covered in a single year, with any degree of depth or specificity, is a mystery.)

Teachers also say they'd like to see results from previous tests to understand how to help students better prepare. But the state Department of Education cites test security and the expense of developing new tests as reasons to keep previous exams secret.

We don't want to see anyone teaching to the test, and we can understand a reluctance to release past tests, but the state needs to be clearer about the core set of knowledge it expects students to get from this course.

"It's kind of a mystery," said Erin Reichert, U.S. history teacher at Bluffton High School. "There's not a lot of documents to support how we're supposed to be teaching it."

Teachers should get feedback from the state on where students are falling short on the test. How can they improve the curriculum if they don't know what areas are getting missed?

Good bets for improving scores are making sure U.S. history tests are cumulative, so students have to remember material from previous lessons, and giving a benchmark test halfway through the school year to see where students need help.

Even better would be teaching concepts in earlier related classes, so that the material is not entirely new to students.

Given the scores on the other end-of-course tests, it's hard to believe students can't do better on the history exam. In this case, the adults need to step up their game, too.