Trivial Pursuit Testing

An education professor takes the Massachuesetts teacher certification test. His conclusion? The test is excellent – if the goal is to train winners in competitions of Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit

By Peter Kiang

In an endeavor to comply with state teacher certification policy, I took the Oct. 3 Massachusetts Teacher Test, but found both the content and process of the test to be distressingly arbitrary.

The above three italicized words were among those that test-takers had to define in the most recent Teacher Test. The sentence reflects my own understanding of how to use them appropriately.

As a professor of teacher education and Asian-American Studies, I chose to take the four-hour Communication and Literacy Skills Test and the four-hour Social Studies Test (with a 20-minute lunch break) in order to understand directly what our students are being asked to know and do.

Like others, I was struck by the rigid, disrespectful conditions of the test process itself. In the afternoon, for example, I was reprimanded initially by the test monitor for not having a more legible signature on my photo identification card, and then more sternly for taking a sip of water. To go to the bathroom, I was told to raise my hand and wait for the test monitor to grant permission because only one of us could leave the testing room at any given time. Then, on my way to the bathroom and back, I noticed three different hall monitors, seated in strategic locations, each doing their duty to check if I had the yellow bathroom permission pass. Had the state somehow confused reform school for education reform, I wondered.

Incoherent Questioning

The test content, particularly in social studies, also challenged me. As I followed the questions in order, the content jumped literally from the 1780 Massachusetts state constitution to contemporary trade relations of Pacific Rim countries to the spread of Islam in seventh century Europe to landforms in western Australia to methods of social science research. I sensed no coherence, connections, or rationale from the questions. Rather, it felt like high stakes Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy, based on a limitless universe of possible questions, including some that were simply wrong. One question, for example, insisted that Puerto Ricans who settled in the northeastern U.S. from 1945-1990 are “immigrants”. But Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth. Was this a deep question, a trick question, a careless question, or an ignorant question? How will responses to this question be scored, and how should those scores then be interpreted?

Ironically, the test developers had contacted me for assistance several months ago because early professional reviews of their questions had criticized the absence of Asian-American content. I provided them (at no charge) with suggestions and 160 pages of Asian-American Studies K-12 curriculum resource materials. But no Asian-American content appeared in my social studies test that afternoon — not even a mention of the World War II internment of Japanese Americans which is arguably the most important challenge to the U.S. Constitution in the 20th century, and certainly an area of content about which all social studies teachers and students should be expected to have substantial knowledge.

With or without Asian-American content, though, the test concerns me in a more fundamental way. Undoubtedly, some will defend the content of the social studies test from charges of racial and cultural bias because it includes quite a few questions about diverse groups in the U.S. and various cultures throughout the world. But by constructing a test based on a sequence of isolated, decontextualized questions that have no relationship to each other, the underlying epistemology embedded in the test design has a Western-cultural bias, even if individual questions include or represent “multicultural” content. Articulating and assessing a knowledge base requires examining not only what one knows, but also how one knows.

The consensus mission of social studies formulated by the National Council for the Social Studies in 1992 reads:

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”

Having now taken the test, I see no valid or reliable way for it to be used as a definitive measure to determine whether a current or prospective social studies teacher can effectively help students gain this ability in the classroom. On the other hand, if the desired role for social studies teachers in Massachusetts is to train new generations of potential prize winners for competitions in Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit, then we have an excellent high stakes instrument in place.

What concerns me most, however, are recently released results from the first two teacher tests analyzed by race. Of those 2,885 test-takers who self-reported a racial identification and took the Communication and Literacy Skills test, less than 220 (8%) were people of color. Similarly, of the 144 who took the social studies test, only 13 (9%) were people of color. My own observations from the most recent test at the Boston site agreed. Of the roughly 150 people I waited with before the building re-opened for the afternoon test session, I noticed fewer than 10 people of color. Out of 20 in my morning testing room, only two of us were non-white. In my afternoon cohort of 20, I was the only one. This limited diversity in the overall pool of prospective teachers contrasts sharply with the demographic realities of classrooms and communities in Massachusetts, especially in urban areas.

Passing Rates

But compared to the low percentages of people of color taking the tests, their passing rates in the first two rounds of testing are even lower. Of those who passed both the reading and writing sections of the Communications and Literacy Skills test, only 5% were people of color. White test-takers passed at a 70% rate, compared with 46% for people of color. For the Social Studies test, whites passed at a rate of 53%, compared with 31% for people of color. Again, people of color accounted for only 5% of the total who passed.

After two rounds of statewide testing, this means in raw numbers that a grand total of four people of color — one Black, two Asian Americans, and one Hispanic passed the test required to become social studies teachers in Massachusetts. The numbers are even fewer in other subject areas. Whether or not this is an intentional outcome of public policy decisions for educational reform in Massachusetts, it is indefensible, and if allowed to continue, will further reduce educational equity and quality of life in our schools.

Having taken the teacher tests, I now understand more clearly why the National Teacher Examination (NTE) used in the past by many states as a requirement for teacher certification became more commonly known in some circles as the “Negro Teacher Eliminator.” Regrettably, we are now repeating history and making the same fatal mistake in Massachusetts, suggesting that the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good — the essential way in which a good social studies education is demonstrated – is lacking among the states top education policy-makers.

Peter Kiang is an associate professor, Graduate College of Education, and Asian-American Studies, at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.