LINCOLN — Social studies are being squeezed out of Nebraska's public schools as teachers focus on reading and math to boost state test scores, several educators told the Nebraska Board of Education.
As a result, the state risks producing a generation of young people ill-prepared to understand citizenship, social issues or the institutions that make America unique, the educators said Wednesday.
Several board members agreed that social studies, which includes the study of history and geography, are being crowded out of the classroom. But the only way to put them on a level playing field with math and reading would be to require a state social studies test.
That decision, they said, would be up to lawmakers, who would also have to come up with the money to pay for it.
Board President Jim Scheer said he's concerned that the state could be producing "a lost generation" of students without a well-rounded education.
He said, however, that the budget for the Nebraska Department of Education has been shrinking and there's no money for a new state assessment.
Schoolchildren in Nebraska have been subject to state standardized testing since 2001, when the writing test went into effect.
Since then, lawmakers added reading, math and science tests, which will all be in place next school year. There is no state social studies exam.
Reading and math scores from the state tests are used for federal accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act. The 2002 federal law imposes sanctions for schools that don't keep raising their scores.
Responding to federal law and state testing, many school districts have boosted instructional time for reading and math over the past decade while reducing time for arts, music and social studies.
The state board is preparing to rewrite social studies standards that spell out what schoolchildren should know about history, geography, civics and politics.
If lawmakers were inclined to require a test, they could use it to measure the new standards, expected to be in place by the end of 2012.
However, administering statewide tests is costly. State officials have even considered reducing the number of grade levels tested in writing to save money.
Randy Bertolas, chairman of the department of history, politics and geography at Wayne State College, told the board that school administrators say they're committed to social studies. But teachers are getting a different message.
"The reality is that quietly they're being told to de-emphasize it," Bertolas said.
He said neither the ACT nor SAT college entrance exams tests for social studies.
In a letter to the board, University of Nebraska-Lincoln economics professor Roger Butters said the state finds itself at "a unique crossroads."
State lawmakers were right to mandate testing in reading, math and writing, he wrote.
But people need something to think and communicate about, and that's the role of social studies.
"How can we expect our citizens to protect the social institutions that have brought us so far if they have no clue as to what they are, how they were formed or how delicate they can be?" he wrote.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation's report card, released last month showed that fewer than one in three American students is proficient in geography.
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