READERS MAY NOT BE AWARE that a number of landmark advancements occurred in late 2018 that vastly improved social studies education in Massachusetts public schools. The proposal we put forth here seeks to continue that positive momentum.

In November 2018, our state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted unanimously to approve new frameworks for history and social science for grades K-12. In addition to adding a new focus on the skills and practices of effective social studies instruction, these frameworks emphasized civic learning across all grades and added an 8th grade civics course for all Massachusetts public school students.

During the same month, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law legislation supported by a non-partisan coalition of civics education advocates that would require civics education in all Massachusetts middle and high schools. To comply, school districts were directed to follow the new state frameworks for civics in 8th grade and US history at the high school level as well as mandates that all middle and high school students complete a project focused on civic learning.

Both the new frameworks and law were supported by the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies, our state’s professional organization for history and social studies teachers.

At the same time, our Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, with support from Secretary of Education Jim Peyser, sought to add a history-focused MCAS test to the current series of tests focused on science, English Language Arts, and math. The intent is admirable. In a testing and accountability-focused educational climate, many school and district leaders, particularly in communities predominantly serving lower-income students and students of color, have given limited attention to history and social studies in favor of tested subjects. Making history/social studies a tested subject might address that structural inequity.

But we think there may a better solution. Instead of more standardized testing, we propose each student complete a civics education project (which is already required of all students in accordance with the 2018 law) as a demonstration of knowledge and skill equivalent to a passing score on the MCAS.

The civics project could:

  • Be long-term, conducted over the course of perhaps a term, a semester, or an entire school year. In the workplace and in college, extended individual and collaborative projects are commonplace; this is excellent preparation for real-world expectations.
  • Align with the ideals of “deeper learning” articulated by scholars Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine in their book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School. A well-developed civics project includes a focus on literacy (particularly important given our state’s large and growing multilingual population), real-world relevance (providing motivation for students to shape their communities through civic action), and student empowerment (students gain knowledge and skills that will enable them to be informed, active citizens).
  • Provide students choice, allowing them to focus on a topic of personal passion, or for a small group to pursue a shared interest collaboratively.

Over the past two years at Boston College, our history education students have conducted oral histories of friends and relatives who participated in the Civil Rights movement. These accounts preserve the historical record, teach students how to do the work of historians, and elevate often hidden voices of our local, regional, and national history.  This sort of oral history project would be a memorable and meaningful civics education project.

Many schools already partner with civic organizations such as Generation Citizen, and the development of civics projects that research a topic, educate others, and advocate for change to improve some aspect of life in our communities has proven to be a worthy learning endeavor for our students. These meaningful, memorable learning endeavors could easily stand on their own as our state’s measure of student learning in history/social studies rather than a traditional test.

We believe a well-crafted civics project facilitates the innovative learning that will position Massachusetts students for personal and professional success in the 21st Century. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has a mechanism in place and has already provided districts with helpful guidance on what forms these civics projects can take.

Indeed, DESE’s own website supporting deeper learning speaks to the relevance of such a project. “In order to meet the demands of the modern world, students need to be able to research, create, and apply concepts in new formats and in collaboration with other people,”  the website says.

A good system includes varied assessments presented in multiple formats that draw on students’ differing strengths and abilities. Currently, students take a battery of conventional exams heavily focused on multiple-choice questions. A rich, engaging project-based approach to civics assessment would complement that experience and enrich the variety of forms of assessment our state uses and values, and allow Massachusetts students to draw on varied skills and abilities to validate their academic abilities and prepare them for active citizenship.

Patrick McQuillan is an associate professor at Boston College and Kerry Dunne is department head of history and social studies for the Weston Public Schools.