US students aren't history whizzes, but they're improving
The latest national report card: younger students are gaining, while high-schoolers show little progress.
The latest report card for America's students bears good news: kids are making gradual progress, especially in younger grades.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But it also sounds a grim alarm: US students still don't know much about history – be it Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous march, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the key motive in writing the Declaration of Independence.
That's one conclusion from the latest review of America's fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-graders from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), which last tested history in 2001 and civics in 1998.
Scores improved slightly – but significantly – at all grade levels for history and stayed flat, other than a small gain for fourth-graders, for civics.
The improvements come despite steady criticism from some educators that the demands of No Child Left Behind have caused schools to skim over subjects like social studies and science in favor of reading and math.
But the reports also show that more than half of 12th-graders do not meet "basic" standards on history. And, as with the most recent NAEP scores for science, reading, and math, older students don't seem to be progressing much.
"This is another sign that our elementary schools are getting better, and another sign that this notion that we're focusing everything on reading and math and kids aren't learning history or science is baloney," says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, which focuses on narrowing the achievement gap. "That said, the eighth- and 12th-grade results aren't terribly encouraging."
The NAEP test, often called the "nation's report card," is administered nationally to a representative group of students and is considered the best benchmark of progress over time in a range of subjects. The history assessment tests knowledge of US history, ability to evaluate evidence, and how well students understand change and continuity over time. The tests target four areas: technological and economic change, democracy, world role, and culture. The civics test assesses understanding of citizenship and the role of government.
In the fourth-grade history assessment, for instance, 46 percent of students correctly identified Lincoln's position on slavery, and 14 percent of 12th-graders were able to explain why the US was involved in the Korean War.
Most fourth-graders (75 percent) knew that only citizens can vote in the US, and half of 12th-graders knew that when national and state laws conflict, national ones win.
The most encouraging results for both tests were in the fourth grade, particularly among lower performers. Fourth-graders at the 10th percentile saw their history scores rise to 165 in 2006 from 147 in 1994, on a 500-point scale. On the civics exam, their scores rose to 111 from 102 between 1998 and 2006, on a 300-point scale.
On the achievement gap – the racial and income disparities in scores that have been such a focus of No Child Left Behind reforms – the only progress in either exam was among fourth-graders, where there was a slight closing of both the white-black and white-Hispanic gaps on history and on the white-Hispanic gap for civics.