Can You Pass This History Test?

New York state was among the first to initiate a testing program for high school students in order to determine if they had learned required material. The infamous “Regents Exam” is known to every person who attended high school in New York state and who can forget the June dread about the upcoming exam? Marc Epstein, writing in the New York Daily News, derides the supposed difficulty of an exam in which a student need only score 36 out of 65 possible points in order to pass. In the old days, when I was a high school student, anything below 60% was a failing grade.

Epstein offers an example to highlight the supposed difficulty of the exam. Students are shown a photo of the situation in the famous Little Rock High School desegregation event. A caption reads: “on September 25, 1957, federal troops escort the Little Rock nine to their classes at Central High School.” The student is asked the following rather difficult question: “Based on the photograph, what was the job of the United States Army troops in Little Rock, Arkansas?”

The more important issue is whether such tests go any further than identifying short term memory on the part of students. Do tests require students to demonstrate their ability to engage in critical thinking concerning issues in American history?