Schenectady County

Global History Regents comes under fire

Qin Shi Huangdi may have been one of the most important figures in Chinese history, but he was an un

Qin Shi Huangdi may have been one of the most important figures in Chinese history, but he was an unknown to some students taking this year’s Global History Regents exam.

Students were asked to write an essay about autocratic leaders and the question cited as an example the first emperor of China who ruled for about 50 years in the third century B.C.

However, Qin Shi Huangdi was not mentioned in the state curriculum, according to Martin Ziac, academic head for social studies in the Scotia-Glenville Central School District.

This section of the test — containing documents-based questions — required students to use provided documents and their own knowledge to craft an essay.

“They couldn’t provide any outside information because they didn’t know this person whatsoever,” Ziac said.

Also, students were confused because the curriculum uses the term “absolutism’ when talking about leaders who rule with complete power — instead of “autocratic.”

Ziac said students in his Advanced Placement World History class were familiar with Huangdi and did well but the students in the regular Regents section did worse than normal because they weren’t exposed to it. Test scores dropped as a result. Ziac could not provide an exact number.

“It had been rising steadily for the last few years, and it brought it down to where it was a few years ago,” he said.

There were other problems with the exam. North Colonie social studies teacher Douglas Marx said the test mentioned the concept of “predestination,” which religious reformer John Calvin taught — that some people were destined at birth to go to heaven, regardless of how they lived their lives. Marx said the curriculum mentions Calvin as a major religious reformer but not predestination.

“If the kid had a teacher that taught predestination, they got a point. If they didn’t, they lost a point,” he said.

Another question talked about humans coming over the land bridge over the Bering Strait to North America.

“That’s really a seventh-grade topic and it’s not in our curriculum either, but they decided it was,” Marx said.

The exam consists of 50 multiple choice questions, one open-ended essay and one documents-based question. How students do on the multiple choice section factors into how much the essay questions are worth, according to Marx. The essays are worth less if students do well on the multiple choice part.

He said he teaches in a wealthy suburban district and said there are still a sizable number of students that are at around 65 percent, where a point or two will really make a difference in passing.

Part of the problem is the global studies curriculum is very broad, according to Marx.

“It’s a guessing game. What are they going to ask? When you’re dealing with 10,000 years of human history, it’s not fair to play the ‘what are they going to ask?’ game,” he said.

By contrast, science and math has a more narrowly defined curriculum, Marx said.

With the increased emphasis on test scores in the state as a component of the new teacher evaluation, teachers are being held accountable.

Deb Shea, assistant superintendent of educational programs and instruction for Niskayuna schools, was not aware of the specific issues but said the test was “very, very difficult.”

“Our scores were lower than they were in the past,” she said.

Rough year

It has been a rough year for the New York State Education Department. This latest issue comes on the heels of the at least 30 mistakes that were found in the standardized tests for grades three through eight.

NYSED spokeswoman Jane Briggs said she hadn’t heard about problems with the Global Studies test. In a follow-up email she said the exam was constructed using the “test specification grid” adopted in 2000.

“This grid is used to be sure that the multiple-choice questions are distributed across units and standards. The essays are not tied to the test specification grid; however they are tied to the themes listed in the front of the Global History and Geography section in the Social Studies Resource Guide and Core Curriculum,” she said.

The New York State United Teachers union, the state’s largest teachers union, has been highly critical of the recent test problems. Spokesman Carl Korn said one problem is the Global Studies exam tests two years’ worth of material covered in ninth and 10th grade.

“Is it realistic for students to know and be tested on a very narrow slice of the curriculum that they were taught more than a year ago, or in some cases, almost two years ago?” he said.

NYSUT has suggested other assessments such as portfolios of student work and projects that can give a better sense of whether a student has grasped the material instead of just a “one-time snapshot.”

The union is concerned that the state is relying too much on the standardized tests. “Just because something can be tested and measured doesn’t mean it gives you all the answers. Students are more than test scores and there’s a lot more that goes into teaching than what can be measured by a standardized test.”

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