Regular readers will remember my very long and question-by-question critique of the 2013 Social Studies STAAR Test. You can find the full version here and a summarized version here. I have been re-reading and re-visiting my thoughts about this test, as well as looking at the 2014 version because I was invited to give a guest talk/lead a discussion about these issues, which will take place tomorrow evening. (Many thanks to those who invited me!)
While preparing, this image (titled The County Election) and the question with it really stuck out from the 2014 STAAR Test:
This painting of a Missouri scene was completed in 1852. Such scenes would look dramatically different after the —
A. ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment
B. Second Great Awakening
C. emergence of Manifest Destiny
D. expansion of the factory system into the South
Can you guess what the “correct” answer is?
It is “A” – the Amendment that, in writing, gave Black Men the right to vote.
Several thoughts cross my mind:
How would having Black Men voting make this image “dramatically different”? Perhaps the test writers were thinking about what would be “dramatically different” to people in the 1850s and 1860s and their mores, but the question does not say anything that would really allow this to apply. Or if they do intend to only suggest there would be (some) Black Men voting, describing it as “dramatically different” could pose complications, especially when we consider the once-again increasing significance of racialized rhetorics in the Obama Era. “Different” alone also makes it problematic, with its connotations of bad.
Another thought I have is that there was/is a strong stereotype, especially created/perpetuated in Birth of a Nation, that Black Men during Reconstruction were uncontrollable and dangerous once they were not enslaved (neo-enslavment is a separate discussion) and had the right to vote.
Another, historically speaking Black Men did not have the vote for that long and even during Reconstruction (before the full development and codification of the Culture of Segregation) Black Men were never free from voter intimidation.
The question, even as a multiple choice question, could but does not make these complications clear. Consequently, it suggests that White people were peaceful and orderly and the Fifteenth Amendment changed this.
The STAAR Test, as overlooked as it might be in a cultural context, is just as much a cultural artifact as films or song lyrics. The questions, construction of the questions, the answer choices all speak a great deal to society’s hopes and fears, especially hopes and fears of those with power. The rhetoric of who is and who is not included is important, as is the Test’s frequent use of broad statements such as “citizens” or “colonists” when it really means “[White] citizens” or “[White] colonists.” Such wording, such rhetoric suggest to young, impressionable students that things were better than they were and better than was even possible, and makes our job as History professors so, so much harder. Unlearning is harder than learning, psychologically and physiologically.