Reflections on the Landscape of Social Studies Standards

Middle school students studying geography

Standards set a baseline for what all students should know and be able to do in a specific content area, and they provide a basis for schools and school districts to develop curricula. Designing effective social studies standards has been a priority for state education agencies (SEAs) and national organizations for nearly 30 years. Because of their dynamic nature, social studies standards need to be continually monitored and updated to respond to the changing cultural, political, and pedagogical ideologies of the times. The recent announcement of a significant decrease in scores for both civics and U.S. history on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) highlights the importance of revising standards to improve student proficiency in social studies.

For the past decade, AIR has partnered with more than a dozen SEAs to support the review, revision, and implementation of their social studies standards. In every collaboration, there are numerous opportunities and challenges specific to the needs and concerns of each state. As a whole, these experiences provide us with an opportunity to reflect on important commonalities and lessons learned.

Four Key Considerations for Social Studies Standards Development

Our experiences working with SEAs both shed light on the current landscape of social studies standards and inform future developments in the field. Further, various frameworks and resources and the NAEP Civics, U.S. History, Geography, and Economics assessments reveal several important trends and priorities. Here are four takeaways for SEAs and their supporters to consider when revising their social studies standards.

A rigorous and transparent process is essential for building trust.

While states each have their own standards revision processes, certain fundamental principles guide the way. Every step of the process, from the initial planning conversations with constituents, to facilitating and supporting standards development and assessing their efficacy, all require a rigorous approach with clear communication on procedural steps and goals. Consistency and transparency ensure trust among stakeholders.

Consider incorporating discipline-specific skills.

Pedagogical approaches to social studies disciplines continue to evolve and change with the times. Over the past few years, a significant number of teachers, scholars, and educational research organizations have begun to advocate for the use of skills-based learning in social studies classrooms. Such processes are not meant to replace or diminish knowledge building as a priority; rather, they can help bolster it. As research suggests, approaches like the inquiry model assists in content knowledge retention by having students actively engage with core social studies concepts that are grounded in evidence. When revising their standards, SEAs should be aware of the benefits of these trends and remain open to including them in their frameworks.

To address achievement gaps, focus on equity.

Equity in standards cannot be assumed; it should be a goal deliberately and constantly addressed throughout the revision process.

The standards movement itself has its roots in educational equity by helping to define a common language for the content and skill sets that every student should possess. Yet NAEP assessment data show large gaps in civics and history achievement scores across various groups (e.g., by socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, etc.). This discrepancy—between the inherent equity of standards and the inequitable outcomes exposed in NAEP assessment data—highlights the need to further prioritize equity in current and future social studies standards. Equity in standards cannot be assumed; it should be a goal deliberately and constantly addressed throughout the revision process.

Inclusion is fundamental to the revision process.

Since 2018, approximately 32 states have revised or are in the process of revising their social studies standards, and many of these states have voiced a need for their social studies content to be more inclusive of all populations (see “The Status of Social Studies by State” map). The first step toward building a more inclusive set of standards is convening a diverse group of stakeholders to engage with the process. States like New Mexico and Alaska, for instance, have made it a priority to include indigenous community partners representative of their states’ diverse backgrounds from the onset of their work. Seeking such input early on and consistently throughout the revision process is essential to ensuring that diverse perspectives are accurately represented in the final standards.

Where Do We Go from Here?

We have seen a number of shifting priorities in the social studies field, changes that impact standards, assessment frameworks, and the data from those assessments. In January 2022, the NAEP Validity Studies Panel published its own NAEP framework considerations. Many of those conclusions mirror our takeaways, including expanding the focus on inquiry skills and developing assessments more attentive to issues of equity.

The announcement of the 2022 NAEP data in history and civics provides further opportunities for the National Assessment Governing Board to address these considerations and begin taking steps to improve the structure and content of the frameworks. We hope that these lessons learned—combined with a restructuring of the NAEP frameworks used to assess efficacy––can help ensure an effective, equitable, and efficient process for all future standards.

Considerations for Standards Revision

Before SEAs and stakeholders embark on the standards revision process, we suggest answering asking these questions:
  • When our standards require revision, what steps can we take to ensure an efficient process with high-quality results?
  • Do our standards assist teachers by effectively articulating essential skills needed for students to receive a well-rounded social studies education?
  • Are our standards promoting equity as well as they should, and how can equity be improved?
  • How do our standards reflect the diversity of our state, and how can we ensure all community partners are included in the revision process?