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Academics Blast State History, Geography Standards

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More than eight years after a consensus of the nation's governors called for all students to master challenging subject matter in the core disciplines, most state content standards in history and geography barely make the grade, two new reports argue.

"In most of the country, the academic expectations for these crucial subjects are flabby and vague," Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said. The Washington-based foundation commissioned the pair of reports released at a press conference here last week.

Among the 37 states with history standards, the 38 states with geography standards, and the District of Columbia, only a handful garnered A's and B's, and about half received failing grades. Standards in the two subject areas, according to the reports, lack rigor and clarity.

"Most of the states' standards range between marginally useful and just plain useless," said David Warren Saxe, an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. Mr. Saxe wrote the report based on his and five other academics' assessments.

Texas was the only state to get high marks in both subjects, earning a B in history--along with California and Massachusetts--and an A in geography, with Colorado and Indiana.

Virginia was the only state with "exemplary" standards in history, according to the report. Those standards have won wide acclaim for their content specificity and are being used as a model by nearly a dozen other states. At the same time, they have also been the target of criticism from some educators, who say they lack context and provide merely a laundry list of names and dates in history. ("In Twist, Consensus Growing on Academic Standards in Va.," June 11, 1997.)

States that were not included in the report do not have standards in the two subjects or are in the process of writing them.

The standards were judged on their clarity, organization, historical content and soundness, and how well they avoid bias.

Blaming Social Studies

The reports cast social studies as a primary culprit. They blame "the curricular swamp known as 'social studies' with its 'thematic approaches,' fixation on 'relevance,' 'expanding environments,' and general muddle-headedness," for many of the weaknesses in the standards.

But some social studies professionals argued that their area is the foundation for the field.

"The real reason that history may not be taught well as part of a social studies curriculum is inadequate teacher preparation," Martharose F. Laffey, the executive director of the Washington-based National Council for the Social Studies, said last week. The new reports "appear to be a heavy-handed effort to dictate state social studies curricula under the guise of 'expert advice' from university-based researchers whose contact with the realities of today's schools may be tenuous," she said.

Other observers said that because the reports do not evaluate teacher and student performance, they may not paint a clear picture of what students are learning.

"I agree that many of the state standards lack historical content and specificity, and are dismally barren of history thinking skills," said Gary B. Nash, a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. But, he added, "the standards may be quite awful in some states where they are teaching history very seriously."

"These reports may be giving a very black mark to the states in a way that is unfair to what teachers are doing." said Mr. Nash, who led the controversial project that issued voluntary national standards in history in 1994.

Encouraging Signs

Despite the reports' gloomy appraisal, there are signs of hope that rigorous standards can be achieved, said Mr. Finn, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Reagan.

"What surprises me is the number of states that are not even in the game," Mr. Finn said. "But the other surprise is that some states did extremely well, which means this is possible. The fact that any had A grades is encouraging."

The Fordham Foundation has underwritten reports on five of the nine subjects identified by President Bush and most of the governors at the 1989 education summit in Charlottesville, Va., as critical to reaching world-class education goals. Math and science reports are expected this month.

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