South Carolina social studies teachers are worried about the future of their profession as the Legislature considers eliminating standardized tests in their subject in elementary and middle school.

In one of the few provisions likely to take effect next year from a stalled-out education overhaul bill, the state could eliminate the SCPASS Social Studies tests in grades 5 and 7. The state previously tested that subject in grades 3 through 8, but it gradually whittled the tests down to just those two grades, responding to pressure from parents and teachers who say too much time is wasted on testing.

But not all teachers are cheering for the end of testing in their subject area.

In an era when student test scores lie at the core of accountability programs and "report cards" that label public schools as good or bad, some teachers fear that the move could de-emphasize their classes when it comes to funding, classroom hours and classroom sizes.

Even after hashing out a compromise with lawmakers this year, social studies educators feel the need to defend subjects such as history, geography, government and civics that they feel are given short shrift.

"Social studies is becoming a 'nice-to-teach,' not a 'need-to-teach,'" said Albert Robertson, coordinator of social studies for Lexington School District 1.

Michele Phillips, a social studies teacher at Orange Grove Charter Middle in West Ashley, said she feels supported by her current school, but she knows about the pressure that other teachers feel to improve standardized test scores.

She said the pressure to "teach to the test" is particularly high for young teachers at high-poverty schools such as Burns Elementary, where she previously taught. If the state is only testing for English, math and science, then she worries those subjects will be the focus.

"I know what it looks like when you're under a microscope," said Phillips, who ran a write-in campaign for state education superintendent last year. "If I were a third-grade teacher at Burns, it would be a different story. Young teachers are trying to earn their certificates, and they're concerned about losing their jobs."

Third grade in particular could prove to be a major pressure point for testing. The state holds back students who can't pass the reading portion of the state English test, leading to new emphasis on literacy in the early grades.

Social studies, meanwhile, wouldn't be used to assess schools' performance until U.S. History, a high school course. Some teachers said recently they worry social studies could be pushed off into the same ancillary category as art and physical education in public policy debates.

The change in testing has not been approved: It's included in a budget proviso that would suspend suspend the social studies tests in fifth and seventh grades, as well as a science test in the eighth grade. 

'An unholy alliance'

Charles Vaughan was teaching middle school social studies in 1999 when South Carolina adopted the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests, measuring students' knowledge in grade three through eight with a heavy emphasis on reading, writing and math skills.

Not long after that, Vaughan noticed his school started teaching English and math 90 minutes per day, while social studies and science became shorter classes that only took place every other day.

Vaughan's experience was a common one. In a recent survey of 750 social studies teachers statewide conducted by the S.C. Council for the Social Studies, about half of teachers said they had seen a decrease in instructional time for social studies during their careers.

About 40 percent said their class sizes were larger than those of their math and English Language Arts colleagues, and 5 percent said they had been told not to teach social studies at all.

The problem is not isolated to South Carolina. National surveys have shown a consistent decline in the number of hours dedicated to teaching social studies since the advent of high-stakes standardized testing and the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which emphasized English and math at the expense of the other disciplines.

"Since the accountability movement ramped up in the late 1990s, those subjects tended to be held up and valorized on the pedestal. The other subjects, science and social studies, were cast aside," said Paul Fitchett, assistant dean of the college of education at UNC-Charlotte, whose research focuses on social studies education.

"Now with the focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), you see social studies is pushed even farther down," he added.

Vaughan, a world geography and teacher cadet instructor at A.C. Flora High in Columbia, currently helps lead the S.C. Council for the Social Studies, an advocacy group of teachers and administrators. Like many teachers, he laments the classroom time wasted on standardized tests that do little to assess students' real knowledge and skills.

But he found himself in an awkward position this year defending the fifth- and seventh-grade tests, as well as the U.S. History End of Course exam, which a previous legislative draft would have eliminated.

He called it an unholy alliance.

"For nearly a decade, social studies has been in this uneasy alliance with testing, even though we don't think that's the best way to look at a student," Vaughan said.

Vaughan pushed legislators to mandate a certain number of classroom hours be spent on social studies, since those hours have noticeably tapered off at both the state and national level. The idea didn't make it into a revised version of the bill.

Dr. Michele Phillips

Orange Grove Middle School teacher Dr. Michele Phillips uses a clock to help explain latitude and longitude lines to her sixth grade social studies students on Friday, May 24, 2019. Brad Nettles/Staff

A compromise

Instead, at the prompting of other social studies teachers who testified in Columbia, lawmakers struck a compromise: The SCPASS Social Studies tests would be eliminated, but social studies standards would be embedded in the reading and writing portions of SC READY tests.

Robertson, who also serves as president of the S.C. Social Studies Supervisors Association, was one of the educators pushing for that compromise. He is not sure what the new test questions will look like, but he believes social studies could be a good fit within literacy initiatives.

"Say you're reading an excerpt from a letter from Abigail Adams. If you don’t have background knowledge on who she is as a person, her period in time, why she's writing the way she is, you're not going to be able to effectively answer a question about her," Robertson said.

At River Bluff High School in Lexington, U.S. History teacher Anastasia Sease looks at the testing issue from two perspectives.

On one hand, Sease is the parent of a sixth-grader who recently had to endure four straight days of standardized tests. She supports the idea of eliminating the testing burden for students and teachers, particularly for young students.

On the other hand, Sease has taught high school social studies for 17 years, and she noticed the difference after the state added an end-of-course test for U.S. History in 2003. Suddenly, there was more support, and school leaders took more of an interest in students learning her subject area.

So while Sease supports cutting tests overall, she thinks the cuts need to be balanced.

"If you cut it all from one discipline and not the others, you will lose the focus in the classroom," Sease said.

Goodwin Elementary CCSD.jpg (copy)

Students at Goodwin Elementary in North Charleston work on a social studies project. File/Wade Spees/Staff

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.