It’s often said that what isn’t tested isn’t taught.  At the same time, recent federal laws compel far too much standardized testing.  State education leaders should reinstate passage of a U.S. history MCAS test as a high school graduation requirement, as was envisioned in the commonwealth’s Education Reform Act. Given the proven performance of Massachusetts public schools over the last two decades in English language arts and math, the commonwealth should also apply for a waiver from federal, annual testing mandates.   

Massachusetts public schools have had much to be proud of over the last two decades.  Between 2005 and 2013 we led the nation at every grade level and every subject tested on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” 

In 2007 and 2013, the Bay State participated as its own “country” on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the gold standard of international math and science testing. Massachusetts students proved to be among the very best in the world in mathematics, and in 2007 our eighth graders tied for number one in the world in science. 

But neither the national nor the state picture look so good when it comes to history and civics.  According to 2014 NAEP results, a mere 23 percent of American eighth graders scored proficient or better in civics.  For U.S. history (18 percent), the numbers were even worse. 

According to 2014 NAEP results, a mere 23 percent of American eighth graders scored proficient or better in civics. For U.S. history (18 percent), the numbers were even worse.

Although NAEP civics and history results aren’t broken down by state, the evidence suggests Massachusetts isn’t doing any better.  Our students are routinely outperformed by their counterparts from California, Oregon, Indiana, Virginia, and Alabama in the national “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution” contest.  In its more than 25-year history, Massachusetts has never finished among the top 10 states. 

Massachusetts’ 1993 Education Reform Act was not overly prescriptive when it came to what subjects should be taught, but it did require students to learn about the fundamentals of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Federalist Papers.  To ensure that students understand the principles of American democracy, it required that they pass a U.S. history test as a condition of high school graduation. 

The requirement was no accident.  While it’s important that public schools prepare students for successful careers, it is also as important that they perpetuate American democracy by teaching the ideals upon which our country was founded and the journey that has brought us to where we are today.  

Highly rated history standards and a test had been developed and were ready to be implemented when the Patrick administration jettisoned the requirement in 2009, citing the $2.4 million cost of administering the test.  Given our improved fiscal condition, there is no reason we can't deploy the test today at a relatively modest cost. 

The No Child Left Behind Law and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, overreach in terms of the amount of testing they require, and this has triggered a strong anti-testing backlash.  The federal laws mandate three times more testing than Massachusetts’ Education Reform Act, which alternated tests in English and math each year, culminating with the 10th-grade test students must pass to graduate from high school. 

But the lack of testing can also have deleterious effects.  Since the history requirement was shelved, entire middle school social studies departments have been eliminated in Massachusetts schools, leaving history courses to be taught by English, math and science teachers.  The waiver would provide a way to restore history while simultaneously reducing the overall amount of standardized testing the commonwealth’s public school students undergo. 

There is little doubt that Massachusetts’ scores will be at or near the top when biennial National Assessment of Educational Progress results are released.  Reinstating passage of a U.S. history test as a high school graduation requirement and gaining a waiver from federal testing requirements will resurrect history and civics education in the commonwealth’s public schools and simultaneously reduce the overall time our students spend on standardized testing.  

Thomas Birmingham is a former president of the Massachusetts Senate, coauthor of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, and a distinguished senior fellow in education at Pioneer Institute.