It’s that time again, time to cram and review for the SAT Subject Tests. I teach at a college prep school. Many of the more selective colleges and several state universities require students to submit subject test scores as a part of the college application. Therefore, we have to have our students ready for these content focused tests.

While running a review session two weeks ago, the students took and then we went over a practice test. One of the practice test questions (from the leading test prep book) was about President Garfield. Only one of our bright, eager students even knew we had a President Garfield. And what this student knew was that he was one of four Presidents assassinated. In making choices about what to cover and what to leave out, my colleagues and I chose to skip past Garfield, spending time in Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and then jumping to American Imperialism in the late nineteenth century.

I have a Ph.D. in History from University of Pennsylvania. I have been teaching US History since 1997! What I know about Garfield is brief:  self-made man from Ohio, compromise candidate for the Republican Party in 1880, worked hard to reform the Federal Civil Service. His successor President Arthur actually signed into law legislation establishing the Civil Service as a merit based system (as opposed to a spoils system). To learn more specifics about Garfield, I can open a browser and do a Bing or Google or Wikipedia search.

Is this what colleges really want students to know?

I don’t want to get into an argument about whether Garfield was a part of US History, or whether the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was a a game changing piece of legislation. The question I want to ask is this: What is it we want our students to learn from their US History survey courses?

Every state requires high school students to take a US History survey course. Given the shortness of the school year and the increasing body of US History (every year we add another year of events, people and topics) we have to make choices. Not so for the makers of the SAT Subject Test. Every event, every President, every person of note is of equal importance and equally likely to show up on the examination. To prepare for any eventuality means moving through the survey textbook at a measured pace, constantly committing facts to memory, reviewing them frequently, and finishing the year with a head full of facts, a knowledge base a mile wide (or at least 300 years long) and a half inch thick. We can hope some of it will stick to the teen brain past the test date.

By using this test in their admissions process, colleges are saying: this is what we want our incoming students to have — heads full of facts.

But what can these students do with these facts? If I were a college admissions director I would want an assessment that sought to tease out a young person’s sense of what it means to be an engaged citizen. As a baseline, this sort of assessment might begin with geography. Where are the Appalachian Mountains and what do they have to do with the Proclamation of 1763? Where is the Grand Coulee Dam and what does it have to do with the Second New Deal? Where is the Rio Grande and what was its importance to the Mexican American War?

Along with geography, I would want to examine what students know about the evolution of the concepts of liberty and equality from the time of the Puritans and Cavaliers through to the present. How informed are they of the ways in which the Constitution has been interpreted and re-interpreted? Then I would want to see how much they know of all those times when citizens came together to effect change — all the 19th and 20th century citizen-led reform movements, including those of Reconstruction and the Progressive Era, to improve the lives of others or reform the government. For instance, I would want students to compare the Bonus Army with the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

If I were representing these respected higher education institutions, I would want such an assessment to measure effective writing and thinking. Then, I would want to know what potential students could actually do with all of this knowledge. Are they active, critical-thinking citizens or passive receivers of information?

That is what I would want to know. How about you?

About the author
Margaret Haviland is Director of Teaching and Learning at Westtown School in West Chester, PA. She combines responsibilities for curriculum development with fostering a school climate that emphasizes continuous professional learning. Margaret constantly evolves her own teaching practice in her high school US History course. She believes her task as a teacher and administrator is to shape her students’ school environment to focus on collaborative learning and ethical leadership in a connected world. She occasionally writes a blog called Breaking Down Walls. Follow her on Twitter @mhavilan.