Bill Gates and the Global History Regents Exam (Part 1)

That the August 2014 Global History & Geography Regents exam included an item extolling Bill Gates’ contributions in the “war” on disease and poverty is not, in itself, evidence of a plutocratic conspiracy. Nonetheless, it does make one wonder about the mindset of those who created the assessment.  It also highlights problems with the current design of the New York State Regents exams in social studies.

Let’s look at the question in question. It includes a four paragraph passage in a text-box:

…Millions of children in developing nations die from diseases like pneumonia, measles and diarrhea that claim twice as many lives annually as AIDS. Vaccines prevent these basic illnesses. Bill Gates pledges billions of dollars to vaccinate the world’s children. Problem solved. But it’s not that easy.

Money alone won’t rid dirty water of parasites that can blind and cripple. It won’t fix bad roads that keep people from getting care. It won’t end the political corruption and violent unrest that erase health advances. It won’t stop a population explosion that contributes to poor health. It can’t even prevent a rat from gnawing through the power cord of a refrigerator used to store vaccines in a remote West African clinic.

In late 1998, Gates donated $100 million to create a program dedicated to getting new and underused vaccines to children in the poorest countries. A year later he gave a stunning $750 million to launch a new superstructure for improving childhood vaccinations, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) – a coalition of international public health agencies, philanthropies, therapists and the pharmaceutical industry….

Gates knows vaccines can’t do it all, not when a regional hospital in Nigeria draws its water from an open pit in the ground. Or where a 6-year-old Ivory Coast boy with a leg twisted by polio faces a life of begging because his mother couldn’t afford a trip to a clinic for vaccines. Or where a broken board on a bridge can halt the shipment of medicine for days….

Source: Tom Paulson, “Bill Gates’ war on disease, poverty is an uphill battle,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 21, 2001

The passage is one of ten documents included in the Document-Based Question (DBQ) on the exam. As such, it is intended to be used among other documents in writing an essay about how global issues (including disease) affect children and how individuals, groups and governments have attempted to address those issues.

The passage includes several features of Gate’s approach to world health:

  • That pharmaceutical solutions such as vaccinations are essential for improving health in the developing world
  • That the developing world is overpopulated
  • That a western-led coalition of private philanthropies, the pharmaceutical industry and government agencies should fashion the way health care is administered in the developing world

The inclusion on a State test of a passage praising one of the most wealthy and powerful men in history, who is doing more than anyone alive to shape the unfolding changes in the American educational order, including widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), need not be a problem. Indeed, the CCSS, the 2014 New York State Social Studies Framework and the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards all make it clear that students need to be closely and critically reading such non-fiction texts, framing questions about those texts, comparing them with other texts and accessing prior knowledge to see how the content of those texts helps illustrate enduring themes. But it is a problem that the Regents exams still don’t include essay questions that ask students to demonstrate these skills.

The Constructed-Response portion of the DBQ asks two low-level reading questions to which most students can easily find the answer:

5a. According to Tom Paulson, what is one situation that makes it difficult to reduce childhood diseases in developing nations?


5b. According to Tom Paulson, what is one way money donated by Bill Gates has been used to reduce childhood diseases in developing nations?

Thus, the Constructed-Response portion of the test, intended to set students up for a more complex writing task, does not guide students toward any consideration of how bias, context or audience might shape the point of view expressed in the passage or how one perspective on Bill Gates’ approach to global health care might be compared with other perspectives. Moreover the overall essay question, for which the instant passage might provide supporting details, does not ask students to evaluate the document at all. Rather, students are asked to use information in at least five of the ten documents in order to “discuss how governments, groups, and/or individuals have attempted to reduce the effects of two global issues on children.” For the purposes of the task, the information in the Bill Gates passage can merely be taken at face value. A man as influential and important as Gates ought to be subject to a little more scrutiny.

The ironic flaw in the question lies in its failure to ask students to demonstrate those analytic skills delineated in the CCSS to which Gates lent his incredible wealth and political support. One educational effect of this is to teach students to uncritically accept that Bill Gates understands what needs to be done to help save children in the developing world. Another effect is to hinder the efforts of educators working to promote the instructional shifts demanded by the latest national and state standards in social studies among other subjects.


One thought on “Bill Gates and the Global History Regents Exam (Part 1)

  1. Tony

    Thank you so much for sharing this reflection with us- it really gave me great insight on the testing and the structural flaws that exist with what our children are being “challenged” to do as it relates to what the CCSS expects. Also this idea that Gates is being regarded as a savior and no counter perspective is offered does concern me. I could not agree with you more- we want our kids to be critically consuming information and that means coming to understand all sides of the story as a way to broaden their perspectives and in turn define their own points of view. Thank you again for helping me think today!


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