As someone with an undergraduate degree in History and a life-long love of the discipline, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to read this article from City Journal. In New York, they apparently have something called the New York State Regents Exams. Thirty years ago, the American History Regents was very different to what it is now – seems my cat might able to pass the 2007 history exam as it’s been dumbed-down considerly (and no, my cat’s not dumb).
The History exam has three parts: 50 multiple-choice questions on American history; 15 questions about 8 historical documents; and two essays, one of which requires the student to make use of the documents and the other a general thematic essay. But it seems the exam is now filled with cartoons and photographs. I remember sitting my HSC exams (way back in the Jurassic Park days) and believe me, there were no multiple questions. I was presented with 12 or so questions (I studied both modern and ancient history in High School) and we had to write essays on 6 if I remember.
So here’s an example of what you’d find in the NY Regents History exam. Documents 3a and 3b are photographs entitled “Suffragists’ Parade 1913”. The banners of the women marching along very clearly have the words “suffrage” and “liberty”. The difficult question then asked is: “What was a goal of the women shown in these photographs?” What the?? How hard is that? Even if the student had no idea, he or she could just write down “to obtain suffrage” and probably pass. And then there’s the super hard task – Document 4 is a reproduction of a poster entitled “12 reasons why women should vote”. All the reasons begin with Because eg “Because laws affecting children should include the woman’s point of view….”. The question the students have to sweat over? “According to this document, what were two arguments suffragists used in this 1915 flier in support of their goal?“.
And the thematic essay will really give the students are roasting – it asks them to identify two changes in American life that resulted from industrial expansion in the 19th Century and to discuss one positive or negative effect. Just in case the poor student has a memory lapse from the burden of too much study, the exam paper helpfully lists some suggestions – “increased immigration, new inventions or technologies, growth of labor unions, growth of monopolies, growth of reform movements, and increased urbanization“.
Really, I find this extraordinarily offensive. And to rub salt in the wounds, apparently the marking system (a mystery if you ask me) allows for an “adjustment” in marks, which means that a student could obtain a correct answer for only 20 out of the 50 questions and still pass! According to my uncanny maths ability, that’s less than 50%.
I decided to sit the exam myself – well, I downloaded the Regents History exam and answered the questions. Not hard IMHO but I might have a slight advantage as my Uni major was American History. My cat scored 100%. You can download the test here (June 2007 United States History & Government Examination).
I’m going to see if I can lay my hands on my old Higher School Certificate History exam papers (that was around 400 AD). But I decided to check out the NSW HSC exam papers in Ancient and Modern History as a comparison to the NY Regents exam. You can find the 2005 HSC Ancient History exam paper here. I’m pleased to see that students are asked to answer one question from a selection of 12 questions in Section 1: Personalities in their Times (and I see that good old Scipio Africanus is still there). Section 2: Ancient Societies again asks students to answer one question from Questions 13-25 (and very interesting questions I might add: seems there’s a lot more emphasis on Ancient Egypt than in my day). There are some photos in the exam, but no give-aways in the photos. And Section 3: Historical Periods follows the same one question format.
Check out both exams for yourself. What do you think?