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Views on Testing And Teaching Civics

*This post was originally a response to a post from The Civic Educator*

Brian at The Civic Educator posted in this Facebook group I moderate, asking about our thoughts on testing in civics education (and to me, the social sciences & history by extension). This is something I feel very strongly about so I decided to share my response on that post here.

I wrote a response to The Civic Educator's post, ​Test Don’t Teach: This Is Not How You Fix Civics Education. Brian's question was "What do y'all think about requiring that students pass the citizenship test before they can graduate...?"

Here's my thoughts:

At the beginning of the year, I chose the 10 "hardest" questions I found in the US citizenship test. Around 6 out of my 64 government students passed. Yes, because my students would need to memorize the year the Constitution was written. *Insert sarcasm here* Or one of the longest rivers in the United States. I feel many of them will probably never even see the Mississippi River in person in their lifetime!

As a second year teacher and from the get-go since the day I started my student teaching, I absolutely refuse to do multiple-choice testing in my class. I had a cool master teacher who let me do whatever I want. The only time I do use it is through the app, Plickers, to collect data when checking for understanding and it tells me where I need to re-teach. Students are NOT graded on it. It's a wonderful tool. When students moan about the lack of MC tests, they'd say, "But multiple choice is easy..." My comeback is this, "Guess what? Life is not limited to four choices." Plus it in no way tells me if they actually grasped the material or not. How can I tell that it isn't because they guessed right?? When I hear fellow (social science) teachers talk about "where's the data?" I don't know what they're asking about...I should probably ask. I'm a qualitative guy, not quantitative. Students should be able to present their point of view and be able to support it with arguments and evidence. That's my basic view in what the social science is all about and how to assess it. (I still have to find/create myself a good rubric for that though...working on it...). I'll probably never get along pedagogically with social science teachers who are all about "data-driven" results.

Even if the question calls for a linear answer, I still have the students write it in instead of choosing it from a list of 4 choices or guessing whether it's true or false. It definitely takes me longer to grade, but it's worth it for the sake of my students. To make it not so stressful on them, I either insert extremely random or non-content-related questions as extra credit.

This year I am redesigning my World History curriculum from the chronological approach to a thematic approach. Before I became a teacher, I knew I'd want to teach thematically. I believe it is the better way to connect the content to the content to the students and create that relevancy. However as a first-year teacher last year, teaching chronologically was easier for the sake of my sanity. Now that I'm somewhat more comfortable, I am redesigning it and working closely with an English teacher at my school site to create cross-curricular activities.

In my civics class, I reduce the focus on dry stuff like the three branches and its functions and focus more on topics more relevant to the students: mass media, public opinion, political parties, political ideologies/leanings, civic awareness/participation. All that other stuff they can just pick up a brochure and read it. "This is how Congress pass laws..." Sure, it's important, but a paragraph or a beautiful infograph from a Google search will explain that fairly clearly. And in some cases, present it much better than I could. Why use up instructional minutes and talk about that??? The textbook is there for the students, but I don't use it. I divert more time on current events and issues. We talk/discuss/debate about free speech/hate speech (Charlottesville), immigration (DACA), criminal justice system (rehabilitation vs. incarceration, recidivism, etc.), etc.

Lastly, when my students turn 18, I give them a birthday present. That present is a voters registration form...and maybe a piece of candy or something.

What are your thoughts on assessments in the social sciences?

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