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Teaching to the Test? What is the Point of This? Northeast Social Studies Exam … Guess Which Grade

4th grade social studies in Massachusetts teaching to the test PragmaticMom Pragmatic MomMy middle child has been studying for her Social Studies exam on the Northeast Region with great diligence for the past week. With one day to go, she still could not spell these terms:

  • Montpelier
  • Iwo-Jima Memorial
  • Jefferson Memorial
  • Lincoln Memorial
  • Vietnam Veteran Memorial
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Capitol
  • Appalachian Mountains
  • Potomac River
  • Chesapeake Bay
  • Delaware
  • New Hampshire
  • Annapolis
  • Harrisburg
  • Providence
  • Vermont
  • Pennsylvania
  • Hartford

Mind you, she can identify all these terms on a blank map and she learned the state capitols which is extra credit. And she had these terms down already:

  • Connecticut
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Dover
  • Augusta
  • Boston
  • Concord
  • Trenton
  • Albany
  • Atlantic Ocean
  • Cape Cod
  • Lake Ontario
  • Lake Erie
  • Erie Canal
  • Hudson River
  • Washington D.C.
  • Washington Monument
  • White House

And I want to add that her social studies is a teacher that I greatly admire.

My question is this: what is the point of all this memorization? I can understand having to learn the geography of the Northeast. But there is no word bank, and when did Social Studies become a big spelling test?

My daughter is actually decent at spelling. Each week, she chooses the more difficult list of two lists and aces it. She asked me this question and I pose it back to you: “Can you spell all these words?” And to further my point, who really cares?

She’s 9-years-old and in 4th grade. Are we teaching to a standardized test here? Can someone please explain the point of this, particularly in this age of the internet?

Of course, to be credible, you will have to identify all these terms on a map and spell them all correctly without a word bank. Don’t forget to capitalize. And state capitols (with an “o” not an “a”) are extra credit.

When I am not prepping my kids for their quizzes, I blog on Parenting, Education and Children’s Literature at PragmaticMom.


10 thoughts on “Teaching to the Test? What is the Point of This? Northeast Social Studies Exam … Guess Which Grade

  1. There is no point. It was in the lesson plan. Just do it!

    Posted by NanceConfer | December 18, 2011, 8:58 pm
  2. Just kidding, of course. What a complete waste of everyone’s time.

    Posted by NanceConfer | December 18, 2011, 8:59 pm
  3. Given how decontextualized our study of geography has become in public schools (spell this, label that) – as compared to, say, trying to figure out the relationships between the manmade places and their environments – I don’t see any reason to teach those words this way. When we write a standard or adopt a curriculum we adults have all these intellectual and political and economic motives in mind that aren’t shared with kids.

    No offense to my dad’s home state or my own, but why teach kids how to spell Montpelier (which I know primarily as a good place for pie) when we could ask them why there are so many abandoned row-homes in Baltimore, or why ask kids to learn where Hartford is without asking them to draw some conclusions about why the Frog Hollow neighborhood has seen its share of struggles? Why not ask how different neighborhoods in the same city might observe the same holiday or event? I’m sure there are teachers asking these questions; I’m sure one of them pops up in one unit somewhere; I’m sure questions like these could replace most curriculums for the better.

    Maybe we should stop teaching capitols and states and start asking kids to figure out what makes cities thrive or strangle. Not exactly something our kids could ace, but we could use more empathy and problem-solving between children.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 19, 2011, 7:31 am
    • Great point C!
      Brain research tells us that without something for all these facts to “stick” to, very little will be retained. Common sense tells us that our phones hold all this information with a click of a button. In geography as in all subjects we want students to use higher order thinking skills. If we look at Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy students are only Remembering – the lowest order thinking skill – in the task described.
      If we want students to be creative and critical thinker then we need to ask them essential, inquiry-based questions such as:
      You live in (state/city/area) and have been asked to put together a disaster plan. Based on the geographic features of your (state/city/area) what disaster is most likely to happen and how can you best prepare for it?
      Your mom got a new job in (state). You can choose to live in City A, City B, City C. What city is the best choice for your family? What criteria did you use to determine your choice?
      The year is (1700s/1800s) and you have just arrived in (state/area) with your family. There are (3) excellent locations for your family. What geographic features helped you decide where to settle and why?

      In these questions students learn more about geographic features and place names but more importantly they learn to think and answer questions based on how and why these features impact the people who live there.

      Obviously with these types of questions students need support to get there. Initially in the early grades the students need more structure, with direct teacher instruction but over time they will learn to complete the task cooperatively and independently. The great thing with these questions is they are all cross curricular. Instead of memorizing facts, students learn to read, write, discuss, compare, contrast, organizer, plan, decide, create, share, present…the list goes on. At the same time they are making meaningful connections between subject areas, as subjects such as math and history are embedded in the task. Oh, and as a side benefit, they also learn some of the related geographic names and places when important and related to the task.

      All of this isn’t easy but it is important. Memorizing facts will not be important as the century progresses!

      For more great ideas on questioning visit one of my favorite sites authored by Jamie McKenzie –

      Posted by Kendra | December 19, 2011, 12:40 pm
      • I will definitely check out the site – thank you!

        Of course, as I’m sure I overlooked in my first comment, the best place to begin is probably with kids’ questions about why people live differently in different places and times.


        Posted by Chad Sansing | December 19, 2011, 6:57 pm
  4. Why would a teacher agree to require this?

    Posted by Kirsten | December 20, 2011, 9:24 am
    • Hi Kirsten,
      I don’t think most teachers have a choice. If test scores become the focus (rather than learning) then it is very difficult to take risks with your teaching or teach anything beyond what is tested. One thing I find interesting is the overwhelming need to test virtually every subject and every student. If a company wants to know and understand their customer they don’t survey everyone. A random sampling will do. In science, again they use test groups. A medical procedure isn’t approved because it’s been tested on every person. So why do we do it in education? It isn’t practical or necessary to test everyone. In the research I’ve looked at, the testing that is done doesn’t really help the individual student. It is only valid information at a district level and higher. In other words all this testing doesn’t really let me as a teacher help the individual child, it only provides insight in terms of trends across a broad group of students. It seems to me we could get this information with a random sample. Can you imagine what schools could do to really improve teaching and learning if all the money that is poured into testing was funneled into equipment, materials and professional development?

      Posted by Kendra | December 20, 2011, 11:02 am
  5. This brings to mind a tale from the classroom. You bring up such relevant points.

    I had an 11th grade student that asked a question in class about why the Pilgrims couldn’t just drive their cars from Europe to the Americas. This student was serious.

    Besides the fact that an automobile would not exist for an additional almost 300 years, this student was not aware of the ocean lying between the continents. An ocean – like it was not even there. Shame, shame that we push rote memorization on our students.

    I taught United States History in Florida. That same student knew where Tallahassee was and how to spell it – but, clearly – that was about it.

    So, what is important here?

    Thanks for the post.

    Posted by mikemeechin | December 20, 2011, 10:14 pm
  6. There seems to be no point, except, perhaps, to start youngsters competing early and to keep competition fierce.

    Posted by Brent Snavely | December 24, 2011, 2:57 pm
  7. Nothing changes in higher ed either, for most ~:-) My number one feedback to psycho-social students is that learning for the exam is NOT going to help you to understand the subject, link information and to graduate confident and competent in your skills and competencies.

    Posted by Char PSI Tutor:Mentor | December 25, 2011, 8:55 pm

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