Social studies: Education officials debate adding it to state tests, as Americans get dumber

Do you know from which country the U.S. of A. declared its independence in 1776? If so, consider yourself among the 74 percent of Americans who do. If not, consider yourself dumber than a first grader, which is when everyone learns about George Washington and how he commanded the Continental Army and beat the British (that's England!) wicked good.

Which brings us to our next point: Several civic-minded groups are lobbying the State Board of Education to add social studies to the new state testing system. And not a minute too soon.

Need proof? Consider this e-mail the board received from Aimee Pellet, a geography professor at the Community College of Aurora and Red Rocks Community College.

Dear Colorado Board of Education,

Is social studies important? Is geography important? I, as a geography teacher and citizen of the world, think it is vitally important. However, I suppose it is ultimately a matter of opinion. What I can share with you, though, are some of the results from my current *college* geography course (World Regional Geography) of 21 students:

On a map test:

Someone labeled Georgia "Jersey" (They didn't even use the "New," so I am assuming it is a reference to the Jersey Shore?)

Someone labeled Wisconsin "Delaware"

Someone labeled Alaska "Germany"

Someone labeled the Rocky Mountains (yes, the ones we LIVE IN) "Alps"!!!!!!!

Someone labeled the Appalachians "Urals"

Someone put South Carolina ABOVE North Carolina!

Six people left Alaska blank

Only one student watches or reads the news. I'm not talking regularly. I mean AT ALL.

Only six people knew Joe Biden was the VP. One person said Barack Obama.

Only four people had heard of the BP oil spill.

Only one person had even *heard* of the genocide in Darfur but didn't really pursue finding out more about it because it might be "too violent." (As opposed to peaceful, non-violent genocide?)

AND ... one person created a new state: South Virginia.

I ask you to consider how instructors like myself are supposed to teach at a college level, when I have to begin every geography course with material that should have been learned in elementary school? How will students ever achieve higher learning concepts when, in many cases, they are starting from the beginning?

Sincerely, Aimee Pellet, MA

The board also got yes-please-social-studies letters from a Yale University PhD student from Colorado who complained the undergrads she's teaching at Yale (Yale!) don't know what the U.S.S.R. is. Another Colorado grad-turned-history professor complained that her freshman have never heard of Ben Franklin. And she teaches in Pennsylvania.

Organizations such as the Colorado Historical Society, the Colorado Municipal League and the Colorado Council for Social Studies also sent letters in favor of more social studies.

The board is in the midst of coming up with new state tests to replace the Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP, test. Board members have been considering factors such as how long the test should be, whether it should be available online and which subjects it should cover. The current CSAP covers reading, writing and math. Students at three grade levels are also tested in science.

On December 6, board members will vote on whether to add social studies to the list. But it's not looking like a slam dunk. According to Colorado Department of Education spokesman Mark Stevens, an advisory group tasked with helping develop the tests has concerns about adding more subjects. They say it will be costly, timely and could open up the possibility of having to add even more subjects in the future.

And of course, we wouldn't want that. Because we're American. And we prefer not to bother ourselves with things like that pesky genocide problem in South Virginia.

More from our Education archive: "Sex ed: Will talk of condoms be banned if state wins $3.2 million abstinence education grant?"

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar