American youngsters know how rock music spreads across borders and can identify the area with the most earthquakes on a world map, but are less able to name America's largest foreign trading partner.
Nearly three-quarters of pupils tested in the first national assessment of geographic knowledge showed at least a basic understanding of the subject, the Education Department recently reported.
"Geography is a window on a very complex world and its people, history, and future. I'm encouraged by these initial results," Education Secretary Richard Riley said.
In National Assessment of Educational Progress tests given to 19,000 fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-graders across the country, 70 percent showed a basic understanding of geography and are "ready to move on to more complex material," Riley says.
Yet that also means 30 percent fall short of basic understanding, "which should be a cause for serious concern," says William Maloney, superintendent of schools for Calvert County, Md.
In the tests, some 70 percent of fourth-graders correctly identified communications systems such as television and radio as the reason children around the world know about rock music.
And in eighth grade, 84 percent who were shown an earthquake map identified the Pacific Rim as the part of the world recording the most earthquakes.
But when high school seniors were asked which country is the biggest trading partner of the United States, only 10 percent knew it was Canada.
On average, fourth-graders scored 206 points, eighth-graders 260 and seniors 285 on a potential scale of 500. The tests included multiple-choice questions, map reading, graph interpretation, and brief written answers.
"Students were asked to go beyond demonstrating knowledge of particular facts; they also had to explain their thinking," notes Jeanne Griffith, acting commissioner of education statistics.
Boys did slightly better on the tests, scoring 208 to the girls' 203 in fourth grade, 262 to 258 in eighth grade, and 288 to 281 in 12th grade.