NAEP Geography Assessment Finds Knowledge Gaps

By Robert Rothman — February 14, 1990 4 min read

Washington--Results from the first national assessment of geography reveal “critical shortcomings” in high-school seniors’ knowledge of the subject, as well as the fact that a substantial number have not studied it in school.

The test of 3,000 students from 300 schools, conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and released here last week, found that, over all, seniors correctly answered 57 percent of the test items.

While the vast majority could locate major countries, such as the Soviet Union and Canada, relatively few could identify other places, such as cities and physical land features.

In addition, the study found, many students had difficulty answering questions about physical geography, such as weather and climate, and about cultural geography, such as economic and environmental issues. Most seniors also appeared unable to interpret information from a map.

Ina V.S. Mullis, NAEP’s deputy director, said the results support the public’s impression, based on previous surveys, that students’ geographical knowledge and skills are “feeble.”

“When asked questions based on the ‘mental map’ of their world,” she said at a press conference, “large numbers of our high-school seniors drew a blank.”

Gilbert M. Grosvenor, president of the National Geographic Society, which helped sponsor the study, said the findings reflect the fact that geography is either not taught at all or taught poorly in many schools.

Less than two-thirds of the seniors reported that they had taken geography coursework in high school, and most of that instruction appears to have occurred in history and science courses.

The study also found, however, that those who had taken geography coursework performed no better than those who did not.

Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos said parents share the responsibility for instilling in their children geographic knowledge and skills. He announced at the press conference that the Education Department is releasing a booklet outlining what parents can do to help their children learn the subject, such as have them help plan trips, read about other cultures, and watch weather forecasts.

“Unless we place a new emphasis on the study of geography,” he said, “we are passing on to our children the stewardship of a world they literally do not know.”

Naep is a Congressionally mandated project that tests a national sample of students in reading, writing, mathematics, and other subjects. It is conducted by the Educational Testing Service under contract to the Education Department.

The 1988 geography assessment, the first undertaken by NAEP, was also the first to receive support from a private organization. The National Geographic Society provided $260,000 toward the project, according to Archie E. Lapointe, NAEP’s executive director.

“Business Investment”

Mr. Grosvenor said the funds represented “a prudent business investment,” since the society has spent $40 million creating a foundation to help improve geographic education.

“We want to find out where the problem is, and analyze where we might be effective in helping,” he said in an interview.

The NAEP report states that students appeared to have difficulty on questions testing their knowledge of locations, which it calls “an important indicator of geographic knowledge.”

The seniors performed best when asked to locate one place on a world map. Some 87 percent could locate Canada, 85 percent could identify the Soviet Union, and 71 percent could pick out Latin America.

But, the study found, they were less likely to be able to locate cities or physical features such as rivers and oceans, and they “did not appear familiar with distributions of natural resources, population, or climate--factors that influence global economic patterns.”

For example, the report notes, nearly a fourth of the students tested incorrectly stated that a map designed to show population concentrations represented mineral deposits.

Such relatively poor performance is “puzzling,” its says, since students reported that locational geography is the aspect of the subject most often taught in schools. Asked how much they studied particular topics, 83percent of the seniors tested responded that they had studied the location of continents, countries, oceans, and rivers “a lot” or “some.”

Latitude and Longitude

The assessment also found that students had difficulty using the skills and tools of geography, such as reading a map, recognizing the purposes of symbolic representations, and interpreting graphs and photographs.

“In general, it appears that many high-school students have not mas4tered such simple concepts as latitude and longitude,” the report states. “Even fewer were able to interpret geographic data represented in graphs and charts, or to use one or more maps to detect patterns or compare and contrast information.”

On questions about cultural geography, students performed relatively well on some items highlighted in the news media, such as the factors that prevent acid rain and the risk to the environment resulting from pesticide use.

But nearly half could not identify the cause of the “greenhouse effect,” and 59 percent could not assess the environmental impact of thermonuclear warfare.

“It seems legitimate to ask whether these high-school seniors are capable of contributing to an effort to preserve our planet,” Ms. Mullis said.

Copies of the report, “The Geography Learning of High-School Seniors,” are available for $10 each from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, P.O. Box 6710, Princeton, N.J. 08541-6710.

Copies of the Education Department’s booklet for parents, “Helping Your Child Learn Geography,” are available for 50 cents each by writing: Geography, Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colo. 81009.

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 1990 edition of Education Week as NAEP Geography Assessment Finds Knowledge Gaps