Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

As the 10th-grade global history teacher at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, the fact that my students would have to pass a Regents exam in my subject as a prerequisite for graduation was never far from my mind. I grew to have a love-hate relationship with this requirement. I liked using the exam to motivate my students and hold them accountable to learning. But at the same time, I found many of the facts assessed by this exam to be arbitrary or trivial.

The Regents Exam in Global History and Geography consists of 50 multiple-choice questions, 12 or so short-answer document based questions, and two essays. A student must score 65 to pass. I typically found that if my students could score 30 out of 50 on the multiple-choice section, they could pass the exam (assuming they wrote both essays). This was no easy task, considering many of my students had low levels of literacy and very little factual knowledge of history or geography to start the year.

Teaching my students the depth and breadth of knowledge necessary to pass this exam was a yearlong process. (Actually, the global history curriculum in New York state covers two years. However, since there were different ninth-grade history teachers in each of the four years I taught at this school, it felt like my responsibility to prepare students for the exam). Before my second year I decided to teach thematically instead of chronologically, anticipating that my students would learn more by studying a few key ideas in-depth than by exposure to a traditional survey approach. This meant I had to choose my themes carefully, so I could introduce many regions and eras under the umbrella of one big idea. My themes included industrialization, imperialism, and human rights, among others. A unit on human rights included content about the Holocaust, apartheid South Africa, and the Rwandan genocide, for example.

For most of the school year, I taught my thematic units using primary and secondary sources and requiring a fair amount of essay writing. I hoped this would prepare them for the essay and document-analysis portions of the Regents exam, and this also best reflected the way I think history should be taught, But for the last six weeks of the school year, I shifted into coach mode and drilled my students on all the facts they might need to know for the multiple-choice section of the test. I designed a program that involved making 15-20 flash cards each week, superficially covering all of the content I didn’t have time for during the rest of the year.

I’ve selected two sample questions to illustrate my issue with the multiple-choice section of the Regents exam. Here’s the first:

Peter the Great of Russia, Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, and Shah Pahlavi of Iran were similar in that in their nations they

  1. restored feudalism
  2. established programs of westernization
  3. instituted democratic governments
  4. allowed foreign occupation

Did you know the answer? My students did. They picked “2” because they learned that Kemal Ataturk westernized Turkey. They did not necessarily know the meaning of “westernization” or which choices to eliminate. But because the Regents exam often asks variations of this same question, I had prepared them for the possibility by teaching them the simple association of Ataturk and Westernization.

By contrast, many of my students got the following question wrong, despite actually having knowledge about Confucius:

Which belief is most closely associated with the philosophy of Confucianism?

  1. nirvana
  2. reincarnation
  3. prayer
  4. filial piety

Here, my students panicked. Most of them knew that Confucius believed children should respect their elders, but they did not know the term filial piety. Instead, many went with a word they vaguely recognized, such as nirvana, even though they may have known that word was connected to Buddhism, not Confucianism.

Despite the seeming irrelevance of many of the facts I asked them to learn, most of my students responded positively to my test-prep regimen. I think they liked the concrete nature of learning facts as well as the consistent positive reinforcement they received from weekly assessments. Once students saw that my system actually helped them improve their scores, most bought into it.

In the end, 55 percent of my students passed their exam during that second year. This was up from 33 percent the year before and was a higher pass rate than the same group of students achieved on their math and science exams. Even so, some of these students barely passed and benefited from generous scores on their essays (teachers grade their own students’ tests in New York). The students who did not pass the exam would have to take it again and again in the future until they did.

The harsh lesson for many of these students was that there is no way around this requirement. I tell my students each year that I can give them the “tricks of the trade” in terms of what to know but I cannot learn for them. Like it or not, passing the exam requires memorizing a lot of information and memorizing information takes work. It takes some students a long time to come to terms with this. A few never did.