According to the National Council for Social Studies, the main purpose of social studies education is to provide students with the “content knowledge, intellectual skills, and civic values necessary for fulfilling the duties of citizenship in a participatory democracy.” In general, it is the goal of public education to prepare students to live in our democratic society, but it is specifically the province of social studies education to provide students with the skills and knowledge to participate fully in all levels of society, from local to global. Given the importance of social studies, it seems surprising that the New York State Board of Regents is thinking about making the Global History and Geography Regents exam optional. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, NYS Education Commissioner John King said, “There’s certainly going to be a lot of jobs in the future in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and this new pathway will encourage districts and schools to create additional opportunities for their students to pursue those areas.” While this might be true, King and the Board of Regents fail to realize the importance of learning and understanding global events in our increasingly interconnected world.
Currently, New York State requires students to pass two social studies Regents exams, one on Global History and Geography and another on United States History and Government. Despite their flaws, namely the reductionist nature of requiring students to demonstrate their knowledge of complex national and international issues through series of multiple choice questions and short essays, these social studies exams require schools to focus on citizenship education, without which students would be ill-prepared to participate fully and competently in a democratic society.
The Global History and Geography Regents exam, a three-hour test, includes fifty multiple-choice questions and two essays, one thematic essay question and document-based essay question (DBQ). This exam, usually taken in 10th grade, assesses students on two years of global history content and includes the following topics: The Ancient World (Ancient Civilizations of Asia, Africa and Europe); Expanding Zones of Exchange and Encounter (from the Gupta Empire to the Crusades); Global Interaction (the interaction of the Japanese, Mongol and African Civilizations, and the Renaissance); The First Global Age (the Ming, Ottoman, Spanish, Portuguese and Mesoamerican empires); Age of Revolution (the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, political revolution, nationalism, industrialism and imperialism); Crisis and Achievement (World War I, the Russian Revolution, rise of dictatorships in Europe, the rise of nationalism in Asia and the Middle East, and how World War II affected the world); 20th Century Since 1945; and Global Connections and Interactions (overpopulation, urbanization, globalization, ethnic rivalry and other economic and political issues).
The United States History and Government Regents exam is the same length and format as the Global Regents exam, but it is typically taken at the end of 11th grade. The U.S. history course and exam include the following content: Colonial America, Constitutional Foundations, the Bill of Rights, basic democratic structure and constitutional principles, federalism, sectionalism, slavery, the Age of Jackson, antebellum reform movements (e.g., Abolitionism), the Civil War, Reconstruction, Industrialization, the New South, the Rise of Industry, Business and Labor, urbanization, Social Darwinism, arts and literature, the changing patterns of immigration, the Last Frontier, Agrarian Protest, the Progressive Movement, Women’s Suffrage, imperialism, World War I, the 1920s and return to “normalcy,” the Great Depression and the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, postwar America, Civil Rights, Kennedy’s New Frontier, Johnson’s Great Society, the Vietnam War, Nixon, Reagan and the Conservative Ascendancy, and a study of 21st Century domestic issues, foreign policy, economic and political issues.
As social studies teachers, we understand the importance of this subject and hope that the NYS Board of Regents will decide to keep both exams mandatory for graduation to ensure that students continue to learn the skills and content associated with citizenship education. Additionally, regardless of the Board’s decision, we will continue to offer review classes
for both social studies Regents exams.