Mississippi Center for Public Policy

Thursday, April 27, 2017

MCPP Reports

US History Test Shortchanges MS Students

February 03, 2017

U.S. History Test Shortchanges Mississippi High School Students

By Forest Thigpen
If you were designing a U.S. History test, where would you start? The Revolutionary War? The Pilgrims? Maybe the Magna Carta as a precursor to the Declaration of Independence?

For Mississippi high school students, the U.S. History "subject area test," which they must take before graduating, starts in the 1870s.

"Student/Parent Information Guide," you won't find questions about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Nothing about the Declaration of Independence, the birth of the Constitution or the debates on the Bill of Rights. The Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and even the Civil War are all absent.

But a student will be considered "advanced" if he or she is able to "evaluate the response of American institutions such as government and non-profit organizations to environmental challenges."

At a "basic" level of knowledge, students will be able to "Analyze evidence that the United States Constitution is a 'living' document." Notice, they will only be asked to analyze evidence that it is, not the evidence that it is not, a document that can be changed without the consent of the people - which is the essence of the "living document" debate.

Such is the problem with focusing only on modern views of our country rather than seeing them in their historical context.

Certainly, tests can't cover every event or notable person in U.S. History. The tests have to draw the line somewhere. This test draws the line around 1870. And while there is apparently not space to cover the founding of our country or a bloody civil war, there is room for other things.

For example, here is a sample question from the practice test on the MDE website: "This list describes some of the popular types of restaurants in Atlanta, Georgia: Chinese, French, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mediterranean, Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese. Which statement explains the information in the list above? (A) The city of Atlanta reflects cultural diversity. (B) The city of Atlanta relies on the tourist industry. (C) Tax laws in Atlanta encourage restaurant development. (D) Working in Atlanta restaurants requires foreign language skills."

In case you're wondering, the answer is "A," and this is considered a "proficient" level question for U.S. History in Mississippi.

Why does the content of the test matter? Because many of the great problems we face in our country stem from a lack of appreciation for our unique role in human history. Our nation's
Founders built our country on a set of principles that recognized the inherent value of the individual, created by God, with certain rights. (Granted, those Founders did not live perfectly by them, but that doesn’t discount the value of the principles themselves.)

It's critical that our high school graduates have a basic understanding of these principles. The current U.S. History test should at least be augmented with the basic Civics Test given to immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens. Its 100 questions cover some current facts, such as the name of the president, but most of it is a good smattering of questions that cover the whole span of U.S. History.

The Civics Test asks questions like these: What is one reason colonists came to America? Why did the colonists fight the British? What did the Declaration of Independence do? Who was the first President? What are the first ten amendments to the Constitution called? Name one of the rights in the First Amendment. The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the constitution; what are these words?

Students who can answer the naturalization civics test demonstrate knowledge about colonial motivations, slavery, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, separation of powers, our government structure, federalism and individuals like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

The ongoing narrative of U.S. History involves heroes and villains, generosity and betrayal, ingenuity and sacrifice - and exceptionalism. With knowledge of the past, our students can seek to emulate our successes, and not repeat our failures. That is much more important to our future than the restaurant menus in Atlanta.

Before going out into the "real world," it is only right and proper that all students be academically prepared to fully participate in our democracy. The U.S. citizenship test recognizes this principle and so requires immigrants to possess a basic grasp of civics and U.S. History.

We should expect no less from our Mississippi high school students.

To learn more about the Civics Test and to take a practice test, go to https://www.uscis.gov/us-citizenship/naturalization-test

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