An American government exam taken by all high school students in Maryland would be eliminated next year under the proposed state budget, a surprising shift in policy that comes just three years after the test was made a graduation requirement.
Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal cuts $1.9 million from the Maryland State Department of Education budget that would pay for the test and its grading. However, the legislature could still restore the test if it found the funding.
Some educators expressed immediate concern that social studies would get less attention in high schools if the test is eliminated.
"I don't understand it," said Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso. "Why fiddle with something like that? … So what does it signal, that government is suddenly less relevant than the other subjects? Why government and not the other tests?"
High school seniors are required to pass the High School Assessments in American government, biology, English and algebra before they can get a diploma. Students take the tests at different times during their high school years, usually at the end of the course. American government is often given freshman year.
State school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who had pushed to make the High School Assessments a graduation requirement, said she is comfortable with the elimination of the exam because the state is now rewriting curriculum in all subjects, including social studies. A set of common national standards developed by the states are being put in place this year in Maryland, and national tests will follow in language arts and math beginning in 2014-2015. After that, the social studies test may be replaced with an exam developed by a consortium of states.
She said seniors would still have to show a passing score to graduate this year, and that students in grades nine through 11 would be encouraged to take the exam. The course would still be a requirement for graduation.
Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for the governor, said in an e-mail, "It is one of those difficult cuts that became necessary to address the substantial deficit we are facing."
But some educators outside the public school system in Maryland see the proposed change as minimizing the importance of social studies.
Steven A. Goldberg, president of the National Council for Social Studies and a teacher in a New Rochelle, N.Y., high school, said states around the nation have been eliminating testing in social studies as part of budget cuts. Maryland was one of the few states that had a high school American government test, he said.
"We have a moral obligation to provide [students] with citizenship education," he said, adding that if schools don't emphasize the importance of learning how the government functions, then "how are we going to prepare our students to take their place in the world and in our society?"
Jeff Passe, professor and chair of the Department of Secondary Education at Towson University who testified before the state school board Tuesday, said in an interview that it is the wrong time to eliminate the exam given the level of civil discourse in the country's political system.
"Constitutional issues are being discussed at every level," he said. "This is the time more than ever to have kids learning about government and how it works. If it is a budgetary issue, there are other ways to save money."
School system officials in Howard and Baltimore counties said the change would have little impact on the teaching of American government in their districts. Roger Plunkett, an assistant superintendent in Baltimore County, said the district has benchmark tests that are given periodically to see whether students are learning the material.
"Not having the state test will not stymie our progress in that area," he said.
Clarissa Evans, executive director of secondary curricular programs in Howard, said the county tries to teach more than what the state requires students to learn on the American government test, so she doesn't expect the county to change its curriculum.
She acknowledged, however, that some social studies teachers may not approve of the elimination of the exam. "There are going to be teachers who feel that by not being one of the big four HSAs that they are somehow diminished," she said.
While some teachers may think their subject is being overlooked, others may be pleased that they will have more freedom to delve into some areas more deeply and teach more creatively.
The High School Assessments were first given to all students in 2002 and became a graduation requirement for the Class of 2009. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that the tests be given in English and Algebra I, but Maryland added biology and American government.
Alonso questioned the decision to shift course so quickly. "These types of changes are why schools and parents can be so skeptical about what central offices do," he said.