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Civics classes left behind?

July 28, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Life, liberty and the pursuit of a diploma are allowing some Tri-State students to abandon constitutional studies, a move that's leading some school officials to blame the United States government.

The federal No Child Left Behind act is designed to close the achievement gap between schools and make sure all students, including disadvantaged groups, are academically proficient, but proficiency doesn't yet mean that all students understand the government system that created the act.

According to the U.S. Department of Education Web site, states should have created standards in math and reading by now and must develop standards for science by the 2005-2006 school year. There is no time line for setting social studies standards.

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Clyde Harrell, Washington County Public Schools supervisor of secondary social studies, said civics teachers are concerned that their subjects will be left in the dust.

Their only assurance comes in the form of the state's standardized high school exam, the Maryland High School Assessments, which tests algebra, geometry, biology and English, as well as government.

The Washington County Board of Education now requires that students take the Maryland High School Assessments as a requirement for graduation beginning with next year's freshman class. When the state decides what grade makes a passing score, that number likely will be added as a graduation requirement, Boyd Michael III, the school system's executive director of secondary education, has said.

Washington County students are required to take Local, State and National Government and two other social studies credits in order to graduate, said Carol Mowen, the school system's public information officer.

In West Virginia, public school systems don't require students to take a government course and Berkeley County Public Schools is no exception, said Frank Aliveto, the school system's deputy superintendent.

He said students can take a government course as an elective.

The state's position has been a matter of contention for West Virginia House of Delegates member John Doyle, D-Jefferson, who thinks civics should be required. He has pushed the issue with the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability to ensure that students are required to learn about democracy.

Doyle said the state's decision more than 30 years ago to make civics an elective course is one of the reasons voter turnout for people younger than 30 is low.

"If somebody says 'Why should I vote, it doesn't mean anything?' They don't know how representative government works," he said.

Aliveto said Berkeley County high school students are required to take two U.S. history courses and are taught about government through other subjects in the course of their public school education.

"I think kids take challenging courses. We need to offer kids as many opportunities to take classes that they enjoy," he said.

Social studies is not tested on West Virginia's standardized test, the West Virginia Educational Standards Test, which has been deemed by the federal government to be in compliance with No Child Left Behind, he said.

Aliveto said students in social studies classes will need to take an end-of-year exam beginning this year, which will count toward about 20 percent of their final grade in that class.

Eric Michael, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Chambersburg (Pa.) Area School District, said students are required to take three social studies courses before graduating, but they have about six social studies options from which to choose. About 99 percent of students elect to take civics their freshman year, he said.

The state's standardized exam, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, tests students only on math, reading and writing, but students get tested in fourth and seventh grades on some social studies questions when they take another standardized test used by the state, he said.

Michael admitted that civics is an area the school system needs to strengthen, but "It's obviously not my top priority," he said in reference to the federal act and its emphasis on reading, writing, math and science.

Michael said when students become more proficient in reading and writing, they'll also become more proficient in social studies. Why the federal government placed priority on science over social studies is up for debate, he said.

"If you look at it from an economic point of view, knowledge in science pushes students' economic viability," he said.

But "whether you like it or not, government impacts everything you do," said Spring Ward, Hagerstown Community College assistant professor of history and political science.

"You may not become a scientist, you may not become a mathematician, but you will be a citizen until the day you die," she said.

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