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Friday, July 11, 2014

If Tests Could Talk

The NY State Board of Regents has a long history, dating back to 1784.  It first administered exams in November of 1866 to determine the readiness of students for high school.  In 1878, exams were administered to high school students as measures of college readiness.  The Regents grew from five exams (American History, Latin, algebra natural geography and natural philosophy) to 42 by 1879 (given in November, February and June).  Between the Twenties and the Seventies, Regents administered vocational exams.  The Regents continues to change.  Exams are more comprehensive.  Foreign language has been eliminated and Common Core has come along (algebra and ELA in 2014).  

Beginning in 1884, the State developed syllabi and teacher's guides to accompany the tests.  The tests used to arrive at schools with feedback slips.  Teachers were encouraged to make suggestions and asked to collaborate on future exams.  Teachers played an integral role in the creation of past tests.  Beginning with the Action Plan in 1984, schools with low test scores (often in impoverished neighborhoods) were placed under "registration review" due to shortcomings in their Comprehensive Assessment Report (CAR).  NCLB and RttT placed an even greater emphasis on tests as measures of school accountability. 

If one wishes to find examples of old exams, many are only a few clicks away.  One can find last June's exams as well as some dating back to 1934 online at nysed.gov.  I have personally administered the Global Studies Regents (given 1989-2000), Regents Competency Tests (easier versions for people who could not pass the Regents) and the more recent Global History and Geography Exams with the document-based question.  At NYSED, I found samples of other exams, including Physical Geography (1934-1940), American History 1,2, and 3 (1934-1969), World History (1950-1968), Citizenship Education (for eighth-grade students in the 1950s), Social Studies (1968-1988) and Asian and African Culture Studies (1976-1977).

The greater part of the World History exam (1950-1968) dealt with European history.  There were some surprising questions.  A January 1952 question asked students the name of the author of On Laws of War and Peace (Hugo Grotius).  Then, there were some questions more familiar in this day and age, the old quotation from Kipling's "The White Man's Burden" which seems to make it onto the exam every other year.  

The American History exams came in one, two and three-year versions, including "American History and World Backgrounds" (which included diverse topics like the Piedmont in Italy).  The 1934 exam had no multiple choice.  It was printed on three pages (as opposed to twenty plus today).  Students were asked to do things like distinguish between terms like "petit jury" and "grand jury" and rearrange items like "Demonetization of silver," the "Bland-Allison Silver Purchase Act" and the "Discovery of gold in California" in chronological order.  

Later exams were structured differently.  The 1938 exam included multiple choice.  In subsequent tests, there might be as many as 40-55 multiple-choice questions.  There were also true and false, fill in the blanks, reading passages and graphs.  The writing questions demanded student knowledge, but in many cases more than memorization.  

I really loved some of the old writing questions.  Students were asked to  use facts to defend their opinions on important issues.  I wish we could see ones like these on our history tests today.  A 1945 exam choice asked to what extent WWII promoted racial understanding.  An August 1949 question asked students to respond to whether the "budget of our federal government should be reduced."  A January 1955 questions asked students to defend a position on the "Developments in the field of atomic energy have increased the military security of the United States."  One January 1957 question asked:  "Is television improving the cultural standards of American people?"  

The tests seemed to include more current events than tests today.  The June 1935 exam asked students to compare the Panic of 1873 or 1893 with the Panic of 1929.   A 1936 exam asked about the Constitutionality of parts of the New Deal.  The January 1937 test asked about Jesse Owens.  The June 1938 exam asked about Amelia Earhart.  The August 1938 exam asked about Manchuria.  The January 1942 exam asked about the Lend-Lease Act.  The 1943 exam asked about the financing of WWII.  A January 1967 question asked about the Great Society.  An August 1966 question asked students to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper in response to "The United States should maintain its present policy in Viet Nam (1965)."  I found this surprising given that Shanker's UFT did not tolerate debate on Vietnam within its delegate assemblies at that time.  

There were some terms I had to look up as I scanned the exams.  I did not know about Lewis Lawes and his prison reform (Jan. 1937 exam).  Then, there was a question about the Ives-Quinn Act of 1945.  I googled it.  It was a NY state law that created an executive-department commission to  try to stop discrimination based on race, creed, color or national origin by employers, labor and other agencies.  Indeed, past exams had more questions on NY state history, "reciprocal trade," economics, in general, and the Labor Movement.  

I wish our tests today could promote the same critical thinking about current issues.  We are missing the opportunity to create the kind of engaged thinkers who will make more informed citizens. We are requiring students to know information, but we are not asking them to apply it in meaningful ways to the issues of today.  I also wish vocational training or career training would make a resurgence, regaining its former stature.   

If tests could talk, I feel sure they'd ask not to be used as weapons to take down students and teachers or as political tools for the harassment of a profession, Arne Duncan's "white, suburban moms" or a whole generation of young minds.  The tests might ask to be filled with more questions that ask students to take informed positions on many issues, including current ones, even those surrounding education.  

They might ask students to take a stand on charter schools, Common Core, tenure and the like.  Sadly, there is too much top-down imposition of policies today and not enough toleration for debate or independence of thought.  Sadly, there seems to be too much money buying ill-thought out public policy, sometimes for personal profit.  We are living in a neo-Gilded Age.  Compare it to the late 1800s in America.  Put that on your test and think it!

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