Students Stumble Again on the Basics of History
National Test Shows Little Progress in Grasping Democracy, U.S. Role in World
By Stephanie Banchero
Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2011
WSJ's Stephanie Banchero has details of a National Assessment of Educational Progress study showing students at the fourth, eighth and twelfth grade levels struggle with basic history questions.
Fewer than a quarter of American 12th-graders knew China was North Korea's ally during the Korean War, and only 35% of fourth-graders knew the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, according to national history-test scores released Tuesday.
The results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that U.S. schoolchildren have made little progress since 2006 in their understanding of key historical themes, including the basic principles of democracy and America's role in the world.
Only 20% of U.S. fourth-graders and 17% of eighth-graders who took the 2010 history exam were "proficient" or "advanced," unchanged since the test was last administered in 2006. Proficient means students have a solid understanding of the material.
The news was even more dire in high school, where 12% of 12th-graders were proficient, unchanged since 2006. More than half of all seniors posted scores at the lowest achievement level, "below basic." While the nation's fourth- and eighth-graders have seen a slight uptick in scores since the exam was first administered in 1994, 12th-graders haven't.
One bright spot in the data was the performance of African-American and Hispanic students in fourth and eighth grades. The average score of Hispanic fourth-graders jumped to 198 last year, versus 175 in 1994, which helped shrink the gap with their white counterparts. In eighth grade, black students improved to 250 points in 2010 from 238 in 1994. At the fourth-grade level, the gap between Hispanic and white students was 39 points in 1994 and 26 points in 2010. In eighth grade, the black-white gap narrowed to 23 points in 2010 from 28 in 1994.
The overall lackluster performance is certain to revive the debate about whether history and other subjects, such as science and art, are being pushed out of the curriculum because of the focus on math and reading demanded under the No Child Left Behind federal education law. The federal law mandates that students be tested in math and reading.
Sue Blanchette, president-elect of the National Council for Social Studies, a national association of K-12 and college social-studies teachers, called the results disheartening and said history education has been marginalized in the last decade.
"Everyone is going to participate in civic life by paying taxes, protesting against paying taxes, voting, and we must teach our children how to think critically about these issues," she said. "Clearly, we are not doing that."
Ms. Blanchette said her group wants the history test administered every two years, like the national math and reading exams, instead of every four years. "What gets measured, gets taught," she said.
The U.S. Department of Education administered the history exam to a representative sample of public and private schools, testing 7,000 fourth-graders, 11,800 eighth-graders and 12,400 high-school seniors. The test is scored on a 0-500 point scale, and those scores are broken into "below basic," "basic," "proficient" and "advanced."
In fourth grade, students who scored at or above basic are likely to know how to interpret a map about the Colonial economy. Fourth-grade students who scored proficient are likely to know that canals increased trade among states, and students scoring advanced probably would be able to explain how factories changed American work.