Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Against the Regents Exam in History

Who was Mansa Musa? I can already imagine the puzzled look on the reader's face, followed by the mental voice asking, "who cares?" And who cares, indeed? The answer to that is some obscure academics and 10th grade students in New York State during brief three hour periods in January, June, and August, when Regents Exams are held.

Past Regents exams can be viewed here. I did not pick Mansa Musa because he is obscure; I picked him because he is obscure and always appears on the Global Regents test. The June 2011 test is not up yet, but he made an appearance there as well. All students in New York State must pass this test in order to graduate; this test is the single greatest barrier to graduating in terms of Regents tests. The state passing rate in 2009-2010 was a mere 69%.

I believe history Regents exams need to be abandoned. As I don't teach other subjects, I will not pretend to be qualified to judge whether they are valuable or not; in more objective fields like Math and Science, perhaps they are of value. In History, however, these tests fail to be useful, largely because they lack a purpose outside of quantifying results for the bureaucracy of New York. Unfortunately, the centralization of education into the hands of the state (and increasingly Federal) government requires a simple measurement to gauge assessment. Large bureaucracies are too unwieldy to allow for proper assessment of a school's performance, much less that of an individual student. Rather than increasing the bureaucratization, quantification, and alienation of education, our state would benefit by increasing local autonomy and standards.

Under our current educational regime, "The Test" dominates the classroom. Teachers are not yet reduced to automatons, but the difficulty of this exam, combined with the severe consequences of not passing it (namely, going throughout life without graduating high school), forces the teacher to make educational decisions based largely on the Regents. Mansa Musa is a good example. As he invariable appears on the test, teachers must spend time on him. It is, in effect, a gimme, a question students should get right. But do you remember your puzzlement at the name Mansa Musa when you read the first line of this post? Obviously, Mansa Musa isn't remembered, mostly because he serves no real use to us now. A teacher with autonomy could make the decision not to cover this otherwise obscure 14th Century West African monarch, but under the Regents the situation is different. Material is presented in the name of the Test, not in the name of Usefulness. Students are not stupid and pick up on this.

So why does New York put Mansa Musa, the Gupta Empire, the Neolithic Revolution, and Toussaint L'Ouverture on the multiple choice section? Mostly because they appeared on past exams and it provides teachers with some sort of expectations as to what will appear on upcoming tests. 10,000 years of civilization is a very long period of time to cover, even in two years of instruction. To then create 50 multiple choice questions from all of the events in human history and expect 15 and 16 year olds to know the answers is beyond absurd. To create some sort of quantifiable test, the State creates some regularity in which individuals and time periods are questioned. The determining factor is not education or enlightenment, but quantification.

History, and indeed all social science, is a difficult field to teach. Science and math are intuitive; once the skill is learned, students can apply the skill to problems never presented in class. For a really easy example, consider addition. Once one figures out what addition is, one can add 476 and 38, even if they never encountered the exact problem 476+38=? during school. History is different. A vast multitude of people, places, nations, philosophies, religions, conflicts, resources, and other variables weave an immensely complex story. Those variables are not interchangeable. One may ask a math student to solve a brand new equation once that student has mastered the principle. There is no such principle in history. Julius Caesar ruled in Rome in the late first century B.C. and no other period. Once that is understood, I cannot then expect a student to know Augustus, though he too ruled in Rome during the late first century B.C. No two people who have ever lived have faced identical situations; each important person, time, and event must be learned on its own. Once this is done, comparisons can be made between people, places, and times.

History is not the mere memorization of facts anymore than friendship is knowing the birthday and address of another human being. To truly understand an event in history, one must know who the people were, what they wanted, how they went about obtaining those desires, who they had to contend with, when these events occurred, how the past impacted the present moment being discussed and how that in turn lead to events following it. When one has a narrative, the details fit together like a puzzle, which is infinitely more memorable than a collection of facts that is analogous to a heap of puzzle pieces.

Many teachers are capable of presenting history in this narrative and the Regents does not preclude it. However, the question we need to answer is whether or not students can create this narrative on their own. I have not seen anyone actually conduct this study, but I would wager good money that many high school graduates could no longer pass this exam. Material is presented, retained until the test, and for the most part forgotten, save by those who have a natural interest in history and who likely knew 90% of the material prior to entering the Global class. The month long preparation to memorize facts for the test may increase passing rates, but it does nothing to increase long term recall. I informally polled Seniors about information presented in Global Studies two years prior; I believe many would not pass if required to take the exam again.

Rather than learning how to create Thematic and Document Based Question essays, students would be better served by learning how to do research and analysis. Granted, this could not be done under a statewide, quantitative system, as the research of tens of thousands of students would be far too varied for the state to keep track of and quantify reliably (i.e. identically). The problem there lies with the state, however, and not the usefulness of research. As things stand, most students graduating from high school are not prepared to perform college level academics. I have made the case elsewhere that society should not put such a high emphasis on college to begin with, but even those who could make use of such an education are not as prepared as they could be.

While the state may not be able to assess tens of thousands of research projects, teachers are able to assess and improve those skills for the hundred or so students they may have. There are significant benefits to having a decentralized, qualitative system, namely that those at the local level actually know the students beyond a number score sent in once at the end of the year. Take a quick look at the chart below:

This is known as Bloom's Taxonomy. As I mentioned before, history is far more than the memorization of facts. The largest aspect of the Regents Exam is, however, a 50 question multiple choice section that is nearly all mere recall. Another 13-14 questions are DBQ responses, in which a student reads a small passage and answers a question about it, usually by copying something directly from the text itself. That is comprehension, the second step up. As for the essays, so long as the student understands the directions and addresses each aspect of the task, even in very little detail that is a mere recitation of facts, the student can score a 2. Two essays at 2 each, plus the DBQs in which the student literally reads the answer and writes it back down, combined with a 60% correct on the rote memorization multiple choice questions, and the student passes.

A student need not show any sign of higher learning abilities than comprehension in order to pass this test. In order to create informed and responsible citizens, students need to be able to evaluate different economic and political philosophies. Students would be better served by learning about fewer issues throughout history but learning them more in depth, in which they will have the requisite knowledge and application and an opportunity to apply those lessons to, say, current events. As more current events are brought in, the more opportunities students will have to exercise the three highest levels of thinking. The details as to how to implement such a plan are best left to the teachers on the ground, rather than imposing blanket standards from above.

At this point, I am beginning to digress into how social studies should be instructed, a topic that deserves its own lengthy post in the near future. For now, I think it is safe to say that the Regents Exams in history (and particular Global) are actually counterproductive if our goal is to create citizens capable of independent thought. A better education can be provided by granting local teachers more autonomy and weakening the unrealistic belief that quantification somehow equates with an improvement in student understanding. New York may have a reputation for excellence in education due to our difficult testing requirements, but that does not mean we are actually producing more enlightened students. And that, after all, is the actual purpose of education.

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