I have never been a big fan of Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests, our state’s answer to the standardized testing requirements imposed on public schools by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Doubtless, there are virtues to a program that aims to measure school performance by making sure students master a concrete set of facts and methods. But from a parental perspective it’s sometimes been hard to see what those virtues are. Instead, what I see are teachers obliged to teach to the annual tests, and my kids getting super-stressed every springtime, despite parental reassurances that these tests are meant to test their teachers, not them. The idea that the tests are actually in their interest seems to them, as they sharpen their No. 2 pencils, a bit far-fetched and hard to swallow.
Given all this, it’s depressing to read that one unforeseen consequence of the “standards” movement has been error-riddled textbooks. According to a story in the Washington Post, Virginia’s adoption of the SOL curriculum meant that schools had to acquire textbooks that contained the material the tests would cover. There was of course not enough money to do the job right, because there never is. Smaller publishing houses could fill the void, producing textbooks that were both compliant with the tests, and relatively cheap. A number of Virginia’s history textbooks are produced by Five Ponds Press, which seems to have assigned the bulk of the writing to a single author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian, and whose oeuvre also includes “Oh, Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty.” Back in October, Five Ponds made headlines when it emerged that a Virginia history textbook included the discredited assertion that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy. This eye-opening revelation led to a review of that and other textbooks by actual historians, who were appalled by the number of errors they found. One historian, Mary Miley Theobald, read “Our America: To 1865,” and found it “too shocking for words.”