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NCSS Wins Grant and NCSS Responds to NAEP Changes

By President ​Tina L. Heafner, Ph.D.

The last week of September and the beginning of October were filled with newsworthy activity for National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).  NCSS announced its successful funding award from the Library of Congress (LOC) and also issued a response to the National Assessment Governing Board’s (NAGB) changes in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing schedule.  In my president’s message for this issue of TSSP, I highlight the importance of each newsworthy event for NCSS members and the broader social studies community.  I also lift these up as examples of NCSS’s leadership efforts to advocate and build capacity for high-quality social studies by providing leadership, services, and support to educators.

NCSS’s Library of Congress (LOC) Inquiry and Teaching with Primary Sources to Prepare Students for College, Career, and Civic Life Grant

With the recent LOC grant, NCSS joins a cadre of esteemed organizations as part of the Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) program.  The LOC funding will be used to create digital instructional materials and professional development support for educators using the Library's primary source collections.  However, unlike most TPS programs that target curriculum resources for practicing teachers, the NCSS Inquiry and Teaching with Primary Sources to Prepare Students for College, Career, and Civic Life project focuses on early interventions in teacher education programs and primary source instructional training for preservice educators.  Not only does the project address an underserved area of preservice education, but it also seeks to promote inquiry as a high-leverage instructional practice for teaching and learning with primary sources in PK-16 social studies. Leaning on the model of inquiry purported in the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework, the LOC project will create two online methods texts and summer institutes for preservice educators and methods professors over a three-year period.

NCSS selected Dr. Scott Waring, a professor of social studies education at the University of Central Florida, to serve as editor and lead for the professional learning programs.  Dr. Waring is the editor of NCSS’s Social Studies and the Young Learner journal, the LOC’s Teaching with Primary Sources Journal, and the Contemporary Issues in Technology and Social Studies Teacher Education Journal.  He has a long history of success with LOC funding and is a longtime member of the TPS consortium.  Dr. Waring, along with NCSS officers and staff, will be supporting the NCSS Inquiry and Teaching with Primary Sources to Prepare Students for College, Career, and Civic Life program.  If you have an interest in contributing to this project, please see the recent call for expertise issued by NCSS. 

Why is this grant significant to NCSS and its members?  Despite the promise of NCSS’s C3 Inquiry for student learning outcomes, inquiry has yet to establish a foothold on instructional practice in PK-12 social studies classrooms.  Inquiry-based instruction remains an underused practice, and often this is due to the lack of access to curricular examples and content resources that model great uses of inquiry. Moreover, teaching with inquiry is hard; it requires a different way of approaching content and instruction, and practice is needed for educators to become effective in the art of inquiry.  By providing models for authentic and meaningful applications of inquiry with primary sources explicitly designed for preservice educators in both PK-6 and 6-12 social studies, the NCSS Inquiry and Teaching with Primary Sources to Prepare Students for College, Career, and Civic Life project will provide needed resources and training early in career preparation to address these gaps. 

NCSS Response to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Testing Changes

On October 4, 2019, NCSS issued a response to the updated NAEP testing schedule, which was announced without warning by NAGB on July 24, 2019. In this statement, we explain each change enacted by NAGB, describe how these decisions affect the field of social studies, and call for action by our members and various community stakeholders.  In addition, we sent a letter to the executive director of the NAGB outlining the effects of NAEP testing changes for social studies education. NCSS reiterated the central importance of social studies subjects and called for the restoration of the assessments of Economics and Geography that were dropped and for more timely assessments of Civics and U.S. History. Many state social studies affiliated councils signed onto this letter in support of increasing awareness of the state-level policy concerns and educational consequences of NAGB’s decisions.  As with recent position statements and responses issued by the NCSS Board of Directors, this statement is a living document, and additional Affiliated Councils are invited to add their names to NCSS’s response to NAEP changes. To read the full statement and to identify Affiliated Council support see:

Why should the NAGB’s actions concern NCSS members?  Changes in the NAEP testing schedule have significant implications for PK-12 social studies. The NAGB stated that the updated schedule retains a focus on “flagship national assessments of Reading and Mathematics, which are mandated by Congress, and prioritizes the information needs of the nation that NAEP is uniquely positioned to provide,” while also communicating the elimination of assessments of Economics and Geography as well as the postponement of assessments of Civics and U.S. History in grades 4 and 12 until 2029.  The later decision creates a social studies assessment gap of 19 years since the last NAEP tests were administered in 2010.

Research trends suggest that testing practices are indicators of subject area priorities; consequently, shifts in national testing have both intended and unintended outcomes for PK-12 social studies. NAEP is used by many states, districts, and schools to establish policy and to enact policy changes.  Many states and districts rely on NAEP scores to identify areas for improvement such as addressing differences in student achievement within student subgroups (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, or socioeconomic status) or variability in learning opportunities by school (e.g., urban, suburban, rural or percentage of diversity of student population).  Thus, NAEP becomes a tool to justify policy decisions (e.g., curriculum standards and graduation requirements) and to advocate for policy actions (e.g., time allocations for subject areas, spending on professional development, and curriculum adoption).  NAEP is also a consistent headliner for calls for school reform and news media stories about educational learning gaps. 

The diminished role of social studies in the new NAEP assessment schedule further marginalizes social studies education. Although the continued role of Civics and US History in NAEP testing may seem promising, NCSS cautions against complacency in accepting NAGB’s decisions. On September 12, 2019, additional action was taken by the NAGB.  They suspended the work of the NAEP Civics writing committee with no expectation “to convene this committee again in the foreseeable future.” Furthermore, the item development process of the writing committee, in partnership with Educational Testing Service (ETS), “has been put on hold indefinitely,” and the use of previously developed content will be part of future NAEP assessments.  The incompleteness of item development and the suspension of the NAEP Civics writing committee inhibits the implementation of revised testing frameworks and has implications for the 2029 administration of NAEP Civics assessment.  

In the October 2019 issue of Social Education, I provide contextual information explaining the NCSS Board of Directors’ decision to take action in response to the NAGB’s changes to the NAEP assessment schedule. I also offer reasoning for why public statements such as NCSS’s Response to the Updated NAEP Schedule operationalize advocacy as the first action in the mission of the National Council for the Social Studies.

A Call for Advocacy and Action 

NCSS’s statement and letter to NAGB alone are not enough to shift the tides in favor of social studies or to counter marginalization trends.  NCSS strongly encourages its members and the social studies community to contact state and local social studies councils and ask them to sign on to the NCSS Statement in response to NAGB’s changes to the NAEP assessment schedule.  In a consolidated effort, we also recommend members and social studies stakeholders work with local and state social studies councils to contact state and national elected officials to inform policy-makers of the NAGB’s decisions and the implications for social studies as well as recommendations for change communicated in the NAEP statement issued by NCSS.  Finally, I invite you to join me in individually contacting our U.S. Representatives and Senators to convey how NAGB’s changes have implications for PK-12 students and why taking action in response to the NAEP updated assessment schedule is needed. The NCSS response to NAGB can serve as our talking points and policy asks. The legislation governing NAGB’s charter is ripe for revision to explicitly include subjects beyond reading and math, and to ensure a more balanced, well-rounded education for all children. To further our collective efforts, NCSS officers and staff are meeting this week in Washington, DC, with other like-minded professional organizations that seek to develop policy and legislative strategies in response to NAGB’s decisions. NCSS will continue to work on behalf of social studies educators to advocate for social studies in the fulfillment of our organizational mission.