Virginia School Board members James Dillard (left) and Billy Cannaday (center) and Virginia Department of Education chief acadmic officer Billy Haun discuss new learning standards.

This year, students throughout the Commonwealth will be taking 23 percent fewer Standards of Learning exams than they did last year. Come the start of next school year, the content taught in some of their courses might look different as well.

During a public hearing Tuesday at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, the Virginia Board of Education heard feedback on proposed changes to the state’s History and Social Science standards, which were last updated in 2008 and reflect the information students should master by the end of each class or grade level.

The meeting was the first of five that will be held throughout the state over the next five weeks.

“From Jamestown, to the Revolution, the Civil War, Emancipation and the Civil Rights Movement, Virginia and Virginians have been at the center of our national story,” said Virginia Board of Education President Christian N. Braunlich. “The board is conducting these hearings at some of the commonwealth’s premier historic sites to underscore its commitment to quality instruction in history, geography, economics and civics that prepares students to think critically about who we are as Americans and Virginians.”

The most significant proposed change is the addition of new skills components in all history courses in grades K-3. Now, in addition to content knowledge, students will have to demonstrate skills such as map reading and the use of multimedia—like graphs, charts and diagrams—to support their learning.

“This doesn’t tell you how
you have to teach, just the
goal at the end of the year,”
Giaramita said.

“So instead of “locate” and “identify” they are now expected to explain, analyze, and evaluate,” said Jennifer Sublette-Williamson, a lead instructional coach for Albemarle County Public Schools.

The proposed standards describe skills as “the tools used to increase student understanding of the history and social science courses curriculum,” and state that developing these skills “is also important in order for students to become better informed citizens.” If adopted, students will be assessed on the skills as part of their regular curriculum, and not in isolation.

“The idea here is that social science skills are actually part of how students develop their understanding of complex content and concepts in addition to being a goal in and of themselves,” said Sublette-Williamson.

Annie Evans, an instructional coach for Charlottesville City Schools, said that introducing skills in the first three years of elementary school is a good practice, as doing so lays the foundation for later studies.

Within grades K-3, content will also be reorganized. Currently, American History content and World History content are taught simultaneously, but the new standards would specify American History to grade 2 and World History to grade 3.

Effectively, students will begin learning history in the context of their local communities before expanding outward to the national and international scales.

“This encourages scaffolding, building on students’ prior knowledge and skills,” Evans said.

Phil Giaramita, Albemarle schools spokesmen, agreed.

“The research shows that we should familiarize children first with their surroundings…then eventually branch out to places overseas or back in time,” Giaramita said, noting that Albemarle backs the recommendations’ emphasis on thinking and application skills.

Evans, however, did question the removal of some information. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt has been proposed for removal from the 1st grade history curriculum, as has Jack Jouett from the Virginia History curriculum.

Billy Haun, the Virginia Department of Education’s chief academic officer and former Albemarle assistant superintendent, said the idea was to make the Standards of Learning more conceptual, and that much of the more specific information will be moved to the state’s curriculum framework.

The state Department of Education developed the new standards with input from parents, K-12 educators and representatives from higher education institutions and other institutions interested in history and the social sciences.

This spring, the General Assembly voted to eliminate five tests for elementary and middle school students, which reduced the total that population takes from 22 to 17. High school students are still required to take 12 tests, which are tied to graduation requirements.

Despite the revisions to the document that states what students should know, Giaramita said local school divisions still control instruction.

“This doesn’t tell you how you have to teach, just the goal at the end of the year,” Giaramita said. “We still have the flexibility to decide how best to teach that.”

The Virginia Board of Education is slated to adopt the new History standards in January 2015. In April 2015, the Virginia Department of Education will present the History and Social Science Curriculum Framework to the Board.

“Everyone who cares about the quality of history instruction in Virginia’s public schools should review the draft and let the board know where and how it improves upon the current history standards — and where and how they think the draft might be improved further,” Braunlich said.