Thoughts and Perspectives

The Most Racist Question (EVER?) on the Texas STAAR Test

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.

9 replies »

  1. I am so, so, SO glad you are bringing up the STAAR test. I am completing my online classes for my Teaching Certification this month and will begin my (unpaid) semester of student teaching in the Spring. One of my online classes brought up the topic of the STAAR test and the professor asked us to look through the version for one of our prospective grades and topics. I am assuming this question is from the 8th grade U.S. history exam because that is where I saw it. I must confess I did not read as much into it as you did, but I did have a different bone to pick. I could not find any consistency or method to the questions being asked or what the writers wanted the students to know. I don’t disagree with what you have brought up, but I think it has more to do with ignorance of rhetoric used and the way the information is consistently dumbed-down, diluted, and whitewashed before it is fed to the students in bite-sized chunks. Upon viewing one of the most recent U.S. history books, I can see they are making efforts to include the history and viewpoints of women and minorities, but the oversimplification of the material leads to unintended (or intended, however you view it) choices in rhetoric, and therefore, stylized and evermore stilted student education.

    I’d like to share a little bit of what I shared in my paper on the subject of the STAAR test because you already spoke on the subject. I have yet to read your question-by-question critique, but it is on my to-do list.

    As a historian, looking at the STAAR test questions for 8th grade history, I honestly found myself wondering, “Why would they ask that? How would a 13 year old be able to guess that?” As an example, Question 9 has a quote by Andrew Jackson, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I know when Andrew Jackson lived, I could almost not guess the answer because the quote they chose was so confusing. “I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one state, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution . . .” The quote doesn’t even need to be that confusing because they are simply asking which event the excerpt is about (Shay’s Rebellion, War of 1812, The Nullification Crisis, Civil War) so if the student knows who Andrew Jackson is and approximately when he was President then by process of elimination they could at least come close to the correct answer.
    Many of the questions seem to ask overly complicated versions of simple questions. The majority focus on knowing specific terms (civic duty), people, and events; but there seems to be a lack of reason as to why students should know these things. They aren’t questions about overall historical themes or reasons why things happened; only that they did happen. Some questions are strangely specific, like describing in 1853 the process of men attaching a hose to a large funnel and asking what affect this mining technique had on the environment. It seems like they want a student to know about major events, but then ask questions about random things. The question may be intended to make the student think critically about how water affects sediment and what the likely result would be, but I can see how an 8th grade student could be blindsided by a question like that after having ones about the Civil War or slavery.
    Some of the language they use could be confusing. The questions are asked in such a way that they could confuse some students because they just sound complicated. If they think critically about the answers then the question may become clearer, but to me this seems misleading. It feels like some of the questions are purposefully over complicated or rest on technicalities. In other instances, the question seems overly simple compared to others. Question 47 listed 3 bullet points about population growth from 5 million in 1800 to 23 million by 1850, financial panics in 1819 and 1837, and that land ownership was linked to wealth and independence. It says the bullet points would most likely be about (which) essay? The choices are the rise of the Republican Party, the emergence of Manifest Destiny, abolitionist groups in the western territories, and the growth of the secession movement in southern states. First of all, only the first and last points seem to have anything in common, but also it seems obvious which answer is correct. Some questions appear very simple, yet others overly complicated and designed to throw students off as a way to challenge them.
    Judging from this version of the test, the people setting the standards or writing the tests seem to miss, in my humble opinion, the entire point of history class. I do not have teaching experience; I have only tutored and lectured to college students, but I still believe that students in middle school are capable of grasping some of the nuances and complexities of history if they have the right teacher. The STAAR test seems both too easy and strangely difficult at the same time. I cannot grasp what the goal is; do they want students to understand major events and why they are important? Do they just want them to know the obvious who, what, when, where, and simple why’s? If so, why throw in strangely specific questions about seemingly unknown or minute people and things? Forgive my candor, but this was what I took away from my first look at the STAAR test. I clearly have some learning to do when it comes to history curriculum.

    Ok, I lied. That was my entire, confused, befuddled response. I suppose I will surmise by saying, you are not alone in your critique of this very flawed test and system.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A few thoughts:

      For sure, for sure, the test is a very “watered down” version of History, society, and life. It is so de-simpliifed, it really isn’t even worth anything. This connections to your comment about the Andrew Jackson question. Because the test waters so much down and doesn’t focus on concepts, students can really only be tested on random trivia or factoids. There was a handful of questions I didn’t even know the answer to. It ask questions that just aren’t important from a true perspective of History! Look forward to hearing your other thoughts.


  2. Herstorian, the commenter above me, really makes a good point. That “many of the questions seem to ask overly complicated versions of simple questions.”

    The question that you singled out was horribly written, and like you said, if students were to think too critically the right answer could be looked at as wrong. For even when the fifteenth amendment was passed, whites through many different means, stopped African Americans from voting. And again, through a point that Glenn makes, “the painting would not necessarily be different – even today – because segregation then and de-facto segregation now.”

    I’m going to quote you now because apparently I’m on a quoting spree. When you said “Consequently, it suggests that White people were peaceful and orderly and the Fifteenth Amendment changed this.” I totally agree with you, but couldn’t most questions on a history test be criticized for not bringing enough context to the table? If you could, how would you reword this question?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Quoting sprees are cool! 🙂

      You are correct that tests automatically provide a kind of skewed and artificial environment. With this questions though I think it is more of just the entire framework of the question. In order for a picture like the one in the questions to be a “true” representation of reality, it would have to, unfortunately, have to have a slave action in the background or have Black Men working in the background or doing something. In other words, I don’t know if we can reword this question and make it better. What do you think, Tim?

      Liked by 1 person

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