Is This Going to be on the Test?

They say, back in the day, life was tough. But, by virtue of more pious standards, life was better for it. Kids today, they have it easy. Unfortunately, for the preachers of these assertions, rarely is this backed up by any satisfactory evidence besides unsolicited eye-witness testimony. Until now.


Recently, I found an old gem that I could not resist. It was a titled: “Kenny Hignite’s 1954 Civics Test on the U.S. Constitution.” It is a scan of an 8th grade civics test filled out in the laborious handwriting of what seems to be a very attentive student of the 1950s. The questions are straightforward; it is to test the student’s knowledge of the basic U.S. governmental structure. What is interesting about it is the comment posted as a caption:

“What more proof do we need that our children are being deliberately dumbed down (sic) than this standard 1954 civics test on the U.S. Constitution on which Kenny Hignite received a 98 1/2, Excellent, indeed!”

Admittedly, the test is tough. I certainly would not be able to answer most of the questions, nor would many educated Americans. There is an assumption here that because the test is harder, its better, and that harder tests are a mark of a better quality education system. Let’s examine this quiz to see just how good it is.

The first 29 questions ask for the names of cabinet members and their title. Young Kenny had a surprising knowledge of the answers. He mechanically lists them off like a pro. Yet, the depth of his knowledge is unknown since there are no questions about the significance of these offices, nor the roles they serve. The questions ask for declarative knowledge in the absence of comprehension and application.

Questions 30 through 51 ask for the provisions of the first to the twenty-second Amendments to the Constitution. The teacher seems happy with his talent for numeration, spelling and memorization.

The questions then start to get interesting. For example:

57. Two things necessary to any good government are ________________?

There is an insufficient amount of space to respond. Kenny’s answer of

Laws and Officials was good enough for the teacher; clearly another exercise in memorization rather than analysis and evaluation.

62. The president chooses his cabinet in order to _____________________?

Here again the students have been coached on the specific criteria necessary to answer this question correctly. Kenny had dutifully memorized his answer here as well.

The most interesting of all of the questions come at the end:

98. Does a dictator consider the welfare of the people? No     . (Correct)

99. Can a government function without the power to raise money? No    . (Correct)

100. Do wealth and power alone make a nation happy? No    . (Correct)

This is an interesting insight into what might be considered moral education. This moral education comes in the form of memorizing answers to questions. The real moral education comes from the design of the test itself: When it comes to the American Constitution, simply listen and repeat.

Kenny did a good job on this quiz. He did what was expected of him and he was aware of the expectations set by the teacher. It is not possible to know the content of the rest of the course, so we can not assume that this low-level learning exercise was the extent of the curriculum. We know, however, that this particular test was quite difficult, if not challenging.

The comment posted above praises the test for being difficult in comparison to today’s standards. It implies that students today are coddled and aren’t given the tough love of their grandparent’s generation. But, is the goal to make our students sweat, or to teach them how to think?

Memorizing a hundred items and regurgitate them onto a quiz is difficult for anyone. Placed in the context of their relevance in relation to other areas of knowledge, it would be much easier. This “easier” approach would also exercise meaningful comprehension of the elements, giving the student a chance to truly understand what they are learning. The moral lesson would be different as well. It would teach students to embrace the principles being taught instead of simply obeying them.

In such a class, the last three questions of the quiz would be essay questions. The criteria would demand that they speak about what those ideas mean to them. Points would be awarded for their ability to construct and articulate a position, not for repeating the right answer.

So, yes Gramps, life was tougher in your day. School taught you to sit down and shut up. You had to learn the rest on your own. This quiz is a perfect example. It takes something very simple and it makes it difficult.

Our job as teachers is not to put obstacles in front of our students. It is to put difficult challenges in front of them and make them seem easy. If an assessment is in keeping with the instructional goals, then there is no reason why it shouldn’t be easy.