The American History Required Knowledge Test
Every quarter I give a test at the end of each quarter called THE REQUIRED KNOWLEDGE TEST. It was inspired by those Jay Leno type man-in-the-street interviews, where they ask people questions that any citizen should know, and they give ridiculously stupid answers. Often they are about current events, but sometimes they are about American history. (Question: Who did we fight in the Revolutionary War? Answers: China, Russia, or Vietnam.)
When I give this test, students have to show that they know the answer to every question in order to get a passing grade for the quarter. If they get one or two wrong, I'll just have them come up after class and tell me what the correct answers are, but if they get a significant number wrong, they'll have to take the entire test again. Students can still fail for the quarter even if they take care of this requirement--and some always do--but they can't earn a passing grade without it. I have never had any kids get Fs because they couldn't pass this test, but I have had a couple of kids, who didn't take me seriously, end up with Fs for quarter grades because they never took care of this. One of them would have had a B-. In any case, here's my Required Knowledge Test:
4th QUARTER REQUIRED KNOWLEDGE TEST
1. What European explorer is most often credited with “discovering” America?
2. In what year did he do it?
3. What people were already here when that explorer came?
4. What European nation’s colonies eventually became the United States?
5. What was the name of the war the U.S. fought to gain its independence?
6. Who was America’s commanding general in this war?
7. Who did the United States fight against in this war?
8. Who won this war?
9. On what exact date (month, day, and year) did the United States declare its independence?
10. How many states were there in the U.S. at this time?
11. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?
12. What is the U.S. plan of government called which went into effect in 1789 and is still in effect today?
13. What are the first ten amendments which guarantee Americans basic rights called?
14. Who was the first President of the United States?
15. Who was the Indian leader who united various Indian tribes into a confederation in the early 1800’s to resist American efforts to take away their land?
16. What group of Indians was forced on “The Trail of Tears”?
17. What nation was much of the southwestern United States, including Texas, Arizona and California a part of before they became part of the United States?
18. What war that the United States fought involved slavery?
19. Who was the President of the United States during that war?
20. In what war were Lexington, Concord, Valley Forge and Yorktown important places?
21. In which war was the Battle of Gettysburg fought?
22. What war involved the Union and the Confederacy?
23. Who was the Union?
24. Who was their general at the end of the war?
25. Who was the Confederacy?
26. Who was their commanding general?
27. Who won this war?
28. What did the Supreme Court say it was okay for Southern states to do regarding black people in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson?
29. Where in the United States were blacks treated equally and gain full civil rights in the period between 1890 and 1950?
30. What nation did the United States fight against in World War I?
31. Who was the U.S. President during this war?
32. What was it called when all alcoholic beverages were made illegal in the United States?
33. What is the name for the worst economic decline in our history that occurred during the 1930’s?
34. Who was the president who was elected four times and served during that period and World War II? (Must include first name)
35. What was the name of his program to get us out of this economic decline?
36. Was this president a Democrat or a Republican?
37. What incident caused the United States to enter World War II?
38. What nation was our most important enemy in Europe in World War II?
39. What nation was our most important enemy in Asia and the Pacific Ocean in World War II?
40. Who was the leader of the Soviet Union during World War II and in the early years of the Cold War?
41. Who was the leader of Germany during World War II?
42. What group of people did he try to completely wipe out?
43. Which side did we fight on during World War II - the Allies or the Axis?
44. Was Great Britain our ally or enemy during World War II?
45. What was our major invasion of Western Europe in World War II that took place at Normandy Beach in France called?
46. Who was the most important American general in Europe during World War II?
47. What new weapon was used by the United States to bring about the end of World War II?
48. What nation was it used against?
49. What nation was the major adversary (that means opponent) of the United States during the Cold War?
50. What type of political and economic system did that nation have?
51. What nation were we fighting to defend in the Korean War?
52. What were we trying to stop from spreading in the Korean War?
53. In what nation did a missile crisis almost cause World War III?
54. In what Supreme Court case was the “separate but equal” doctrine overturned?
55. Who is generally considered to have been the greatest black civil rights leader?
56. What U.S. president was assassinated in 1963?
57. What Black Muslim leader was most responsible for spreading that organization’s ideas in the early 1960’s?
58. What nation were we trying to defend in the Vietnam War?
59. What were we trying to prevent from spreading in the Vietnam War?
60. Did we win the Vietnam War?
61. What was the name of the scandal that resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon?
62. What political party were John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson?
63. What political party were Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan?
64. Do Democrats tend to be liberal or conservative?
65. Do Republicans tend to be liberal or conservative?
66. Did the Civil War take place during the 1600’s, 1700’s or 1800’s?
67. Did the Revolutionary War take place during the 1600’s, 1700’s or 1800’s?
68. Did the World War II take place during the 1910’s, 1940’s, 1950’s or 1960’s?
69. Did the Vietnam War take place during the 1910’s, 1940’s, 1950’s or 1960’s?
70. Did the World War I take place during the 1910’s, 1940’s, 1950’s or 1960’s?
I give the first seventeen questions at the end of the first quarter, the first 29 at the end of the second, the first 52, plus the dates at the end of the third, and all of them at the end of the fourth.
Believe me, I hope most of my kids know a lot more than this by the time I'm done with them, and most of my class IS NOT simply memorization and regurgitation. But when my kids don't know the answers to questions like these, it is embarrassing to me as a teacher, and it should be embarrassing to them. That's why I started giving this test, and I've actually had students thank me for it.
At the beginning of the year, I give twenty-two of the most basic questions from this test to my classes, just to see where the kids are. Every year I have a number of kids who only get one or two right, and most years at least one or two get zeroes. Amazingly, four years ago, one Laotian girl who got one of those zeroes ended up getting an A in my class. But when I see some of those low scores on that test at the beginning of the year, I know that I will have my hands full just to get kids to acquire a very basic understanding of American history.
When the state of Minnesota, or any state for that matter, sets standards for American History classes, I wish they would recognize what many of us are dealing with. In other words, I wish they would give us something that every one of our students should know in order to pass, and then give us some flexibility beyond that. Instead, they come up with ridiculous lists that would probably be more appropriate for college graduates. I don't know how true this is for other subject areas, but when it comes to history, I suspect that whenever a panel is assembled to set standards, everyone on that panel must be going out of their way to impress their fellow panel members with their own incredible knowledge and high standards. For example, the first item on Minnesota's list of standards for sophomore American history students is the ability to recognize the difference between Aztec and Mayan architecture. And after that, the list doesn't get any better.
I want my kids to know who we fought in the Revolutionary War, and I also want them to know something about the things that led up to it. I know it's a tall order, but I even hope that some kids will be able to give a reasonable argument about whether or not the British should have been able to tax us. I want my kids to know why the Civil War was fought, and I want them to know about some important people and places involved in it. I want my kids to understand something about the civil rights movement, and I want my kids to know something about how women and minorities have been treated earlier in our history. There are a lot of other things I want my students to know, but if some kid didn't know at the beginning of the year that George Washington was our first president, do I really care if he can ever tell the difference between Mayan and Aztec architecture? Give me a break!