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About Those Tests Indicating Students Have Low History IQ's

Thanks to the work of Stanford’s Sam Wineburg, we know that America has gone through a whole series of" crises" in history and civic education, dating back to at least 1917. Our latest in this long tradition has been sparked by a report from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) called"The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions."

The press release accompanying this work begins with the same tone of alarm that educators have come to expect from such reports,"An unprecedented study of more than 14,000 randomly selected students from across the country reveals that colleges and universities, including some of the most expensive and elite in the United States, are failing to add to their graduates’ understanding of America’s history and essential institutions." The report draws this conclusion from the results of a 60-question multiple-choice test given to the above-mentioned 14,000 undergrads. It also ranks colleges on the basis of how their students performed on this examination.

It seems fitting that theChronicle of Higher Education called on Sam Wineburg to put these results in proper historical perspective."When the alarm has been sounded so many times," asks the Chronicle, apparently paraphrasing Wineburg,"does it begin to ring hollow?" The Chronicle also cites other experts who question the specific methodology of this study.

I have neither the background in the history of education nor the mathematical ability to add to the critique that those scholars quoted in the Chronicle article offer, but I do think there is something rather obvious that everyone involved in this endeavor has missed. The universities that are rated in this Intercollegiate Studies Institute study are only teaching their students badly if their professors are teaching the material that the ISI put on its test.

Let me give you an example from my own experience to illustrate this point. When I was an undergraduate, every history course I took was in American history but one (which was a World History survey). After I graduated, I took the History GRE exam, which had a significant portion in it devoted to European History. I left many of those questions blank. As you might imagine, I didn’t do very well. However, my performance wasn’t the fault of my professors, it was my fault for not having broader interests.

As the beginning of its press release suggests, the ISI is using its test as a critique of professors as well as the colleges and universities at which they teach. In fact, it claims that institutions whose seniors score worse than their freshmen are fostering"negative learning," as if attending college classes at these places sucks all the useful knowledge from one’s brain and replaces it with pop culture references.

While I am clearly not as alarmed by the results of"The Coming Crisis in Citizenship" as the ISI would want to me to be, I do believe that this study might still prove useful. While a 60-question multiple-choice test is no way to critique HOW American history is taught in Higher Education today, it might be a useful tool for critiquing WHAT gets taught.

For example, I can certainly imagine a student of today (in the same way that I avoided European History for four years) taking all of their courses in social and cultural history and avoiding history classes that center on political and economic topics that seem comparatively dull. The professors who teach those social and cultural topics might teach those subjects extremely well, but if there are no questions on those topics in that 60-question multiple-choice test it will appear as if their professors have failed them.

Unfortunately, with the exception of a few samples, the ISI won’t release the questions on its test. Apparently, they’re still administering the exam to more students. Yet to adequately judge whether we face a true crisis in citizenship we have to be able to decide whether the knowledge that ISI is testing for really is as critical as it says. Perhaps more importantly, we have to judge whether that information is more critical than the almost infinite amount of other knowledge that educators besides those at ISI might think important enough to include in their American history courses.

This last concern does not mean I expect the public need for civic education to bend to the whims of individual educators. There is ample middle ground here. I do not see social/cultural history and political/economic history as necessarily competing for space in the same course or even in the same lecture. My favorite sub-field of labor history, for example, makes no sense outside the economic and political context of the time in which workers labored.

Whether a 60-question multiple-choice test can reflect such subtleties, however, is another matter entirely. Hopefully, the ISI will stop using multiple-choice tests to blame history educators for yet another crisis in civic education and start a friendlier dialogue about the curriculum choices they’re making.

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