Better fill in the right bubbles  or your teacher gets the axe.

Better fill in the right bubbles or your teacher gets the axe.


Students across New York State sat down to take Regents exams all last week. The January Regents, for most schools, are make-ups for students who did not pass an exam the first time. For many students, last week’s U.S. History Regents could have been the difference between graduating or not.

Which is why it is upsetting to open up a Regents exam for the first time and come across patently ridiculous questions. Last week’s Global History exam was actually worse in this regard but I don’t have a copy of it on hand. The U.S. History exam was bad enough.

There are many types of bad questions on these history exams. In total they make a great case for why the testing craze sweeping this country is destructive, not to mention why judging students and teachers by the results of these exams are just plain lunacy.

Take Question # 11 from the U.S. History exam:

One result of the purchase of the Louisiana Territory (1803) was that the United States

(1) acquired California from Spain

(2) gained control of the port of New Orleans

(3) ended border conflicts with British Canada

(4) annexed Florida

The answer they are looking for is (2). Of course, as I mentioned in my recent Thomas Jefferson post, the United States had been focused on getting New Orleans for a long time. Merchants and farmers out west were constantly frustrated at not having access to New Orleans which is at the mouth of the Mississippi River and, therefore, a major port of trade. Jefferson was fulfilling a long-time American dream by purchasing it and the rest of the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon.

But there were other “results” of the Louisiana Purchase. The acquisition of so much western land focused Americans on westward settlement. It continued an entire western momentum that started with the French and Indian War (1754-1761), which is when American colonists started to penetrate beyond the Appalachians into the Ohio River Valley. With the Louisiana Territory in their possession Americans began to believe that it was their “destiny”, their God-given “Manifest Destiny”, to take control of the entire continent to the Pacific Ocean. 44 years after the Purchase, President James Polk instigated a war with Mexico to fulfill this destiny, gaining California in the process. Therefore, it could be argued that one of the “results” of the Louisiana Purchase was that the U.S. “(1) acquired California from Spain”. While the U.S. never acquired California directly from Spain (as we’ve seen, they got it from Mexico), both California and Mexico were colonies of Spain during the time of the Louisiana Purchase.

As you can see in this map, getting the port of New Orleans was the only result of the Louisiana Purchase.

As you can see in this map, getting the port of New Orleans was the only result of the Louisiana Purchase.

What if a teacher had taught this to their students to give them a more complete picture of the Louisiana Purchase in the context of American History? A student could have filled in choice (1), been at least partially correct and received no credit for it. What if a teacher explained to their students that the Louisiana Purchase put the United States on a collision course with Florida  (which was owned by Spain ), necessitating a series of arguments between the two countries over the borders of East and West Florida (which included the Gulf Coast regions of modern-day Mississippi and Alabama)? What if a teacher taught their students that, after the Purchase, several American generals (including Andrew Jackson) raided Florida in attempts to conquer it? Spain was a decaying empire who did not have the stomach for a trans-Atlantic fight with an aggressive and young United States. This led to the Adams-Onis Treaty (1819 – and negotiated by my favorite American ever, John Quincy Adams) where the United States annexed Florida, which is choice (4).

It is best for a teacher not to teach these things to their students so they will not be confused and fill in the “wrong” bubble on the exam. Of course, the only cost of this is a limited, stunted, incomplete curriculum of United States history, leading to a limited, stunted and incomplete understanding of U.S. history by our students.

But that’s alright. We need to show that we “add value” as teachers which, in this case, means debasing the value of the curriculum.

Three questions later, at question 14, we have another such question:

Which group benefited most directly from the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford?

(1) abolitionists    (3) slave owners

(2) immigrants     (4) enslaved persons

They want answer (4) because Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that slavery was legally permitted in all of the territories. He also ruled that “a black man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect.” How can it not be choice (4)?

Well, it could be any of these choices. It can also be none of these choices. It is hard to say that anyone directly benefited from Taney’s decision. Even though he ruled that slave owners could bring their human chattel anywhere in the American territories, there is little evidence to suggest they did so. The country was so divided over the slavery issue in 1857 that it would be unlikely that slave owners would dare to bring slaves to any territory whose population was against slavery, lest the slave owners get a visit from John Brown and his family or similar types of crusaders.  Essentially, slave owners could only bring slaves to those territories whose people and climates were conducive to slavery, which is to say the territories in which slavery was already legal. The net direct benefit to slave owners in reality was negligible.

Remember the mass exodus of slave owners into the Oregon Territory?

Remember the mass exodus of slave owners into the Oregon Territory?

On the other hand, Taney’s decision strengthened the perception in the north that the “Slave Power”, as many abolitionists called it, dominated the federal government. It steeled their resolve to oppose slavery which became one of the big factors that pushed the nation into the Civil War. It would be the war that ended up abolishing slavery, in which case choice (1) makes sense. By extension, it also means choice (4) makes sense.

Or if you accept the premise that the Dred Scott case strengthened the institution of slavery, then choice (2) makes sense. Northern immigrants were some of the biggest supporters of slavery and the Democratic Party that defended it (indeed, immigrant support is one of the few things that have remained constant about the Democrats since the Age of Jackson). In their minds, slavery kept potential competition for their jobs chained in bondage far away in the south. One of the worst nightmares of many immigrants was an influx of freed slaves to the north undercutting their wages.

Again, heaven forbid a student has a wide-ranging mind that can take in all of these possibilities or had a teacher that taught this to them. They might fill in the wrong bubble and “prove” that their teacher did not “add value” to their understanding of Dred Scott.

Then, a mere eight questions later, we find this question:

In the early 1900s, the United States proposed the Open Door Policy to

(1) gain new colonies in the Pacific

(2) win support for building the Panama Canal

(3) improve relations with Europe

(4) secure access to markets in China

They obviously want choice (4) here. The United States’ economy exploded after the Civil War, ushering in an era of rapid expansion. The 1890 census showed that the “frontier” out on the western part of the continent was “full”, so Americans cast a covetous glance beyond towards the Pacific. Unfortunately, most of Europe had beaten them to the punch when it came to imperialism. The United States was oftentimes treated as a junior partner by the great powers in the game of geopolitical expansion. In Hawaii, Samoa and many other Pacific Islands, the U.S. asserted its growing influence in an attempt to both gain new markets and gain the respect of the great powers. Therefore, if the U.S. wanted to gain markets in China as choice (4) says, could that not also mean that they wished to “improve relations with Europe”, which is choice (3)?

C'mon Europe, let us get a piece of China. In return, you won't have to respect us or treat us well at all.

C’mon Europe, let us get a piece of China. In return, you won’t have to respect us or treat us well at all.

This, of course, all depends on what you mean by “improve”. As the U.S. expanded its influence the great powers took the growing nation more seriously, causing them to seek alliances, trade agreements and peace with the U.S. Would this not be an “improvement” by most definitions of the word? If the U.S. did not aggressively push its interests like it it did in China and other places, it would have remained a non-entity to the great powers and a country whose shipping was ripe for plunder on the high seas. In the world of geopolitics, might makes right.

An open-minded student could make a good case for choosing (3). Unfortunately, scantron machines do not care about making good cases and critical thought. No value added here Mr./Ms. Open-Minded Student. It is obvious that your teacher did not add any value to you.

A similar thing happens a mere six questions later in question 28:

After World War I, one way in which the Red Scare, the passing of the Quota Acts, and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan were similar is that they all

(1) exploited fears about people who were considered un-American

(2) encourages the assimilation of new immigrants into American society

(3) supported goals of the suffrage movement

(4) exhibited prejudice against African Americans

Granted, the answer that makes the most sense is (1). The question refers to the climate of “nativism” that swept the country after World War I. However, if the country was turning against everything foreign then would it not cause many immigrants to want to assimilate? No immigrant wanted to a visit from the KKK or to be raided by A. Mitchell Palmer in his quest to find communists. One of the best ways to avoid this was to act American, which would be choice (2). Indeed, one of the byproducts of the nativist climate was the drive to assimilate. It was in the 1920s when most children in the United States had been enrolled in public school for the first time. One of the original reasons to have public schools in the first place was to Americanize the children of immigrants. All of the things mentioned in this question certainly helped make up the minds of immigrant parents as to whether or not they wanted to send their children to public schools. Assimilate or suffer could have been a mantra of the Roaring 20s.

What better time to act all "immigranty" than when the Klan is marching on D.C.? To hell with assimilation, bring out the rosary beads and dreidels.

What better time to act all “immigranty” than when the Klan is marching on D.C.? To hell with assimilation, bring out the rosary beads and dreidels.

Too bad for the student who might see things in this way and for the teacher who taught this. There is just no value to be had in an idea that leads to the wrong bubble-in answer.

A mere two questions later it happens again with a very strange question:

As part of the New Deal, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) were created to

(1) allow for a quick recovery of stock prices

(2) provide direct loans to businesses

(3) protect individual investors from stock fraud and bank failure

(4) allow banks and companies to invest in the stock market

Choice (3) makes sense. The SEC attempted to make the stock market transparent so investors would not get fleeced. The FDIC allowed the government to insure bank deposits so that bank runs would not wipe out people’s savings. This is the answer they want.

On the other hand, the transparency that the SEC was designed to bring to the market was also designed to bring back investor confidence, in which case choice (4) makes sense. Now, yes, the FDIC did not affect the stock market but the Glass-Stegall Act, which was the law that created the FDIC, did. Not only did Glass-Stegall create the FDIC, it erected a “firewall” between consumer and investor banks. The former type of bank would only deal with savings and small loans. The latter type of bank would deal with venture capital and stocks. While choice (4) is not technically “correct” it is sort of a gotcha question. A student could read FDIC and think Glass-Stegall and bubble in the wrong choice.

So I suppose it is better for a teacher to avoid mentioning Glass-Stegall altogether. Instead, they should merely focus on the FDIC part of the law and teach it as an isolated event. Clouding a student’s mind with an unnecessarily full view of history will only lead to the wrong bubble getting filled in and a negative “value added” score. I guess the banks should be happy about this. Students would never learn that Glass-Steagall reined in some of the worst abuses of big banks, including using the money of their customers to gamble in the stock market and other risky ventures. Thanks to the Gramm-Leach-Blily Act (1999), the part of Glass-Stegall that prevented banks from doing these things was repealed. Now students will never learn that banks were once regulated in this way and instead assume that the giant casinos the banks have become is the banks’ natural, default way of doing things.


The banks themselves could not have designed a question better suited to preempt the future generations from understanding how they continue to abuse the economy and put all of us at risk, again.

These are not all of the stupid, vague, incomplete or just plain inane questions that can be found on the January 2013 U.S. History regents. However, this post is already longer than common internet decency will allow.

What these questions show us is that teachers are encouraged to teach a narrow American History curriculum. Any teacher who attempts otherwise runs the risk of “confusing” their students, leading to wrong answers, negative value added and, eventually, a pink slip.

This is the New York State’s version of newspeak. A small curriculum leads to large “value added” for the teacher. A vast curriculum leads to negative “value added”. The freedom students and teachers receive, freedom from being left back or freedom from being fired, is actually slavery in the form of a shallow, ignorant understanding of history.


  1. You know, I had some really fabulous teachers growing up. As, I was reading this piece and came upon..the questions, my immediate thought was-WOW….there could be multiple answers. Then, I saw the choices, and my heart completely sank. Not only for students, but for ALL TEACHERS TOO. All this information….that gets thrown at kids….from so many sources and from many different types of teachers. Knowledge can be so subjective. It’s so sad, that this testing regimen…makes teachers feel worthless!

  2. You forgot about DBQ #6, where the picture and the entire story save one sentence (admittedly mentioning the Montgomery Bus Boycott) were about newly integrated lunch counters in in the south & the question they ask has to do with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I had to look at it several times, and really analyze it, and even then it was a stretch to find the connection. The AP was shaking her head, and other history people were as well.

    • I spent so much time dissecting the stupid Global questions that I didn’t even get to the DBQ section of the U.S. History exam. Now that I look at it, you’re right. Not only is this mostly all about Greensboro but they take two events that were 5 years apart and just lump them together like they’re the same thing. And when a student writes an “incorrect” response as per the “yellow booklet” that we the teachers get, whose fault is it? Oh, that’s right, OURS.

  3. Thanks for pointing out all these deficiencies in the test(s). That only strengthens the views I’ve always had about multiple choice tests: except for testing some very limited issues, e.g. spelling, they’re useless for testing complex issues that need understanding. When I was a teacher (of Englich) in Germany, I always preferred the essay-type test – at least in the upper grades.
    Best regards,

    • Thank you for stopping by. I heard in Europe they don’t stress multiple choice as much as we do here and, instead, rely on essays, papers, presentations, etc. Maybe you can shed some light on this.

      We run a foreign exchange at my school every year where students from Austria (I know it’s not Germany) visit us. They just seem more open-minded, more mature than your average teen. I chalk this up to an enlightened upbringing, one that does not subject them to a battery of fill-in questions.

      • Hi there,
        I’m sorry it took me that long to answer.
        Let me first state that I’m no longer up to date with the situation in my native country, Germany, since I retired in 2003 and came over here to the US in 2008. But I try to keep myself informed.
        What I can say, though, is that multiple choice tests were always frowned upon in the German educational system – actually, not even allowed for the regular written tests that are required during the school year. The trend that was going on while I was still teaching, viz. towards more “comprehensive” tests that (nearly) always and exclusively require the students to write longer pieces themselves, has definitely continued. There are 6 – 8 of those written tests per school year. In higher grades the essay-type test is the only test allowed. Btw, usually it’s the teacher himself who “creates” this test, even for the final graduation exam. Apart from that, as you say, the students are encouraged to do presentations etc.
        Unfortunately the trend towards more testing just for evaluating the students’ progress and comparing different schools has grown. It’s still done by the traditional testing method, but to my mind it seems to create a trend towards teaching to the test – which previously never was the goal. The goal then was comprehensive education, enlargement of knowledge and the ability to think.
        That’s what comes to my mind as to German education just now. If <you have any questions, feel free to let me know and I'll do my best to answer – and without such a long delay. 😉
        Best regards from southern Texas,

  4. At first I was looking at the examples given and not exactly seeing your point. I mean every test I’ve ever taken feels like this to me. It was the part that always frustrated me the most.

    But I learned over the years that if you ignore the broader information of such tests and instead focused on the answer most likely to be what the largest percentage of test designers what you to think of in that situation, then you can usually get a passing grade.

    I even remember an IQ test where you were supposed to pick an article of clothing that was unlike all the other article of clothing… only each item fit with three others in some way depending on how you looked at it.

    They aren’t asking you to think about the relations of those things, they are asking you to improve your skills at focusing on what they think you should focus on and to give them the answer they want to hear.

    It occurs to me that they may be what you mean. I just help but feel like, ‘that’s the nature of tests in a system where thought processes and understanding are done on an assembly line to a code standard from one person to 20-30 each day.’

    • Thank you for your comments, Ken. I suppose you’re right inasmuch multiple choice is the most efficient way to assess kids in a system where the student/teacher ratio is 30/1.

      However, in an era when we want the “best schools” for our children, is this type of efficient assessment the best? And when our assessments are sub-par, would this not facilitate sub-par curriculum? I suppose that was the case I was trying to make in this piece. It’s up to you whether or not you agree with this.

      It strikes me as ironic that the same so-called “reformers” who want the “best schools” for children are the ones foisting these types of exams on us. The funny thing is, as far as exams go, the Regents is one of the least objectionable out there. It has a long tradition and educators do have some (very limited) input into what goes in them. Can you imagine what the other exams are like?

      Do you buy into the idea that sub-par, myopic assessments like this (and even you seem to concede that this exam is myopic) helps give rise to a myopic curriculum?

      There are much better ways to assess the understanding of students: essays, research, presentations, short-answers, documentaries, etc. There is a whole range of wonderful things that can be done to not only assess but enrich what our students learn. Testing pushes all of that to the background, if not eliminate them entirely.

      Even so-called IQ exams are myopic in their own way in that they test a very specific type of intelligence. These IQ exams came about during WWI to help armies determine what roles draftees should play in the army. For many decades after they fell into disrepute due to their association with Eugenics. Only recently, within the past few decades, have they made a comeback.

      Thanks again for stopping by, Comments are always appreciated even if you don’t agree with everything you read here. I should say, they are appreciated especially if you don’t agree with everything you read here.

  5. The answer for 14 is 3 slaveholders.

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  7. Ah the always um entertaining world of Regents Exams. Do you know if there’s a history out there on the NY State Board of Regents? While it certainly has become a sad example of the effects of “teaching to the test” and the like when it first was started there were likely positive results.

    Note: I’m a holder of a Local Diploma or whatever they’re called, so my thoughts on the whole Regents system are a bit biased.

  8. Pingback: multiple-choice fun « Learning: Theory, Policy, Practice

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