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.

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.

As with the NAEP science scores released last year, this assessment was of particular interest given the heated debate about whether the curriculum is narrowing.

"Educators and parents have to understand that education isn't just reading and math. It's the arts, it's history and civics, it's science," says Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University. The gains shown in NAEP are significant, Professor Ravitch says, but not huge, and history continues to be the subject with the lowest overall NAEP performance. She notes that the narrowing of the curriculum in recent years has coincided with regular reminders from educators about the importance of social studies – something she hopes contributed to the gains.

"Understanding history is the basis of political intelligence," Ravitch says. "There's a lot of reason to be concerned when you look at the numbers and see that a lot of kids on the verge of becoming voting adults aren't informed about US history."

At Wednesday's release of the scores, Kim Kozbial-Hess, a fourth-grade teacher from Ohio and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, echoed that concern. "The gain is encouraging, but the figure is still disappointingly low," she said, noting that just 13 percent of high school seniors reached a "proficient" achievement level in history. On one question, where students were asked to identify a photo of the Berlin Wall being torn down (labeled "Berlin, 1989") and cite its impact on US foreign policy, just 1 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of 12th-graders gave a complete response identifying the event and mentioning the impact on the cold war.

"Clearly, there is much more to do before we can be satisfied" with understanding of history, Ms. Kozbial-Hess said.

One solution is to focus more attention on the quality of teaching and the need to keep history classrooms dynamic and student-centered, says Michael Serber, senior education fellow at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York, which promotes history education and provides curriculums and staff development to high schools and, more recently, elementary schools.

"If the teacher is doing it in the right way, history should be an exciting subject," Mr. Serber says.

Ms. Haycock of the Education Trust says she hopes the scores can help educators move beyond criticisms that students aren't learning other subjects. But she also sees them as another wake-up call that high-schoolers need the same attention that elementary schools have received in recent years.

"We're putting kids into courses with the right names [in high school], but we've lost any sense of what should be taught in those courses," Haycock says. "It's clear now that we have to ... shift resources toward more rigor in what we ask of middle and high school students."

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