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How are our students learning history? A look at trends, timelines and changing narratives

As Virginia History SOL scores fall, teachers report their students are more engaged and skeptical than ever before.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Virginia Department of Education data shows student history scores are declining each year, both statewide and in Hampton Roads.

However, local history teachers said the test scores don't tell the full story, contending their history students are more passionate and skeptical than ever before.

“You can have a deeper love for America being somebody who asks questions and raises their hand and says I don’t think this is right, versus someone who just accepts an answer," said Chris Jacobs, lead teacher for the Green Run High School Innovation Lab in Virginia Beach.

On a September afternoon in Jacobs' Innovation Lab history class, students discussed questions like: Did Nat Turner end slavery? Is Jay-Z an Uncle Tom?

This year, Jacobs' class is switching everything up. They’re going backward.

“In traditional history classes and the pacing guides, by the time all the interruptions happen you never get to the last 50 years...or you’re just blazing through it," Jacobs said.

To counter this, the class is starting with modern history and then reversing back to 1619.

“We really think it’s important for these students to know the world they’re living in," he said.

Jacobs said students today are more focused on context and the application of history than his students were 15 years ago. 

In Portsmouth, I.C. Norcom High School Social Studies Chair Brooke Archambeau agreed and said history classes have evolved.

“[Students discuss] how does this compare, how does this contrast, how does this relate to you versus this is what happened 100 years ago and you need to remember that," Archambeau said. 

She said her history students are more curious today, focused on skills and what context is relevant to their lives.

“The focus is more on investigating for themselves, and that’s something they have to do long after they leave us," Archambeau said.

But still, Jacobs and Archambeau hear grumblings from older generations.

“We definitely hear all the time that the students don’t think anymore, they don’t work hard and don’t read," Jacobs said.

He added there’s a perception that modern students are becoming more apathetic and uninformed. In Virginia, test scores seem to back that up.

Across the state, History SOL scores dropped six percent over the last three years – the biggest drop-off in any testing subject. In Hampton Roads, scores in all seven cities fell each year over that same time-frame. Passing rates in Newport News and Norfolk dropped into the 60s.

The decline is partly due to changes in SOL standards. Starting last year, history SOL tests were only required for students who had not passed the history classes needed for graduation. This change shrunk the pool of test-takers and removed the scores of top students. However, the change doesn't account for previous year-to-year drops

“The score is what it is, you know," Jacobs said. "It’s not something that is going to keep us awake at night but obviously we still want to do our best on it.”

Archambeau said she doesn't evaluate her students' success in a subject on the SOL test results.

“I don’t put all of the weight on an SOL test in any subject because it’s one test, it is not an overall assessment that we get to see from start to finish - it does not measure growth," she said.

Despite the test scores, both teachers said they’re encouraged by this generation of history learners

“A population of people who do not think for themselves and are not educated is something Thomas Jefferson feared in the 1800s and something we should still fear today," Jacobs said.

He said his current students are far from uninformed. He argued they’re more skeptical and analytical, invested in interpreting history.

“They say [students are] ‘losing’ that connection to America because they’re not so worshipful of these founding fathers," Jacobs said. "To me, it’s a beautiful thing for a kid to have access to all of this information and begin to question everything.”


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