There is a large amount of information to transfer to young brains during our look at exploration. Students must be given a point of focus regarding the state of Europe, Africa, and Asia in the 1400s to understand the motivation behind exploration, and they must keep track of four different countries---Portugal, Spain, France, and England---regarding various expeditions. Who sailed? Why did they sail? What were their accomplishments? How did the new knowledge that was gathered change various relationships between countries? How did the arrival of Europeans change the lives of Native Americans?
Suddenly my elementary students find themselves exposed to a bit of world history and are attempting to pronounce words such as Renaissance, place names like Constantinople and Songhai and over twenty-five various names like Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca.
We have fun with the content by mapping various journeys and playing matching games with names of explorers and their accomplishments. We explore online, watch videos to gain visual images, I provide students with opportunities to uncover content independently, and I get to tell a few great stories as well. However, the bottom line that lurks behind the scene is six months from now my young students will be judged on how well they know the content and I will be judged on how well I teach based on the state test. Students must recall the hit parade of explorers, their accomplishments, and the details regarding country interaction from the 1400s through the 1600s by answering approximately 60 multiple-choice questions spanning exploration content as well as details learned about ancient Native Americans and historical events during the 1700s to the mid-1800s.
Should a nine year old student be required to recall this sort of information several months later? Is this really developmentally appropriate for the majority of students?
In my own experience I feel a large section of my students are are too immature and lack any sort of foundational knowledge to connect with the standards I teach as preparation for the type of test the state gives. At fourth grade educators and parents are still dealing with many students who have difficulty reading the textbook because the text tends to be a year or two above the actual grade level, and students lack knowledge regarding textbook construction. Many of my students are still struggling with mastering math facts and spelling patterns. Is it really realistic thinking that a great number of my students can also recall historical minutiae when taking a multiple choice test as I have described six months after the fact?
The content I teach as well as the content that is taught in the fifth grade is intended to be foundational knowledge. Any builder who really cares about the integrity of their creation would never test the building’s foundation without making sure a firm foundation existed. I love the way the state of Georgia introduces American History to students in fourth and fifth grade, and don’t want to change that. What I would like to see is a state test where students use the historical content to show they have mastered key Social Studies skills.
Examples of released questions can be seen here and here.
Rather than judging little Bobby or Sue by giving them a description of a an explorer and his accomplishments and asking him/her to choose the correct name from a field of four choices I feel it would be much more reasonable and appropriate at the fourth grade level to focus on skills rather than content memorization. For example, I would love to see several test questions centered around a matrix chart that contains information concerning explorers. Information would include from what country they sailed for, what country they hailed from, their goal, problems they encountered, and accomplishments. Questions would ask the student to locate information on the chart and make analytical decisions based on comparing and contrasting bits of information.
I would also like to see maps on the state test where students are asked questions concerning various voyages including route and general direction. Timelines would be appropriate, as well, especially parallel time lines regarding the exploration efforts of Spain, France, and England. Even various questions involving key vocabulary would be appropriate such as “An expedition is-----“.
While these types of questions do appear now and then on the test they are woefully presented in small numbers, and it is clear I'm not alone in thinking Georgi'a state test needs more work. Questions that require students to remember relatively small details in the scheme of things still abound though in great numbers and they result in a poor judgement regarding what my students really know and understand concerning knowledge that serves as a foundation for Social Studies.
A related post---The Realities of Testing