Panel Paves Way To Test Students' Geography Skills

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Giving impetus to a long-neglected discipline in the school curriculum, the National Assessment Governing Board late last week was poised to adopt a draft framework for the first full-blown national assessment of students' grasp of geography.

If approved at a meeting here, the framework would be used to guide the development of the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress geography tests for students in grades 4, 8, and 12.

"It's about time we took geography seriously,'' said Chester E. Finn Jr., a member of the governing board and a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University.

"This assessment,'' he said, "will both give us base-line information as to where we are and a far clearer notion as to where we ought to be in geography.''

After nearly disappearing from U.S. schools, geography began moving up on education agendas in the mid-1980's after surveys and tests suggested American students were woefully ignorant in that area.

The subject, commonly taught under the umbrella of social studies at the earliest levels, quickly gained in prominence, however.

Under the national education goals adopted by President Bush and the nation's governors in 1990, geography is one of only five core subjects in which all American students are expected to demonstrate competence in challenging subject matter by the year 2000.

'Ambitious' Plan

While the upcoming assessment will be the first large-scale test of students' knowledge in geography conducted by NAEP, a Congressionally mandated project that measures student abilities in a variety of subjects, the agency administered a smaller-scale trial test in the subject in 1988.

In a project partly funded by the National Geographic Society, NAEP administered a 67-question geography test to 3,000 high-school seniors. The results showed, for example, that only half of the students tested knew that the Panama Canal cut sailing time between New York City and San Francisco, and slightly more could describe the impact of cutting down rain forests.

To develop the framework for the new assessment, the NAEP governing board awarded a contract to the Council of Chief State School Officers working in cooperation with the National Council for Geographic Education. The consensus-forming effort was also assisted by the National Council for the Social Studies and the American Institutes for Research.

The groups formed a 23-member steering committee to set the direction of the framework and a 19-member planning committee to put it together. The panels included geographers, educators, business and union leaders, policymakers, and representatives of education groups.

The final draft they completed, which has already been circulated for comments to 500 other people in those fields, suggests an "ambitious'' plan for teaching geography.

"It probably is more than most students are getting in geography now,'' said Sharif Shakrani, a planning-committee member and the supervisor of curriculum and instruction for the Michigan Department of Education. "It's not intended to measure what students know, but what students ought to know.''

Moreover, the document attempts to dispel traditional notions of geography as a subject that largely calls upon students to memorize names of places and the natural resources of countries.

"Geography is a whole lot more than that,'' said Susan Munroe, who coordinated the project for the school chiefs' group. "It's what happens where, and what are the contributing factors of space and place.''

Yet, she noted, the framework also demands that students demonstrate a grasp of basic knowledge of the field. At the 4th-grade level, for example, about 45 percent of the exercises would include such basic questions.

"There was a strong feeling students need to understand the fundamentals of geography before moving on to more complex understandings,'' Ms. Munroe said. "It's a discipline that does have its own vocabulary, like mathematics.''

'Why Is It There?'

According to the framework, students, for example, should also be able to draw maps to differing scales, analyze information from satellite photographs, and use computers and computer data bases to answer geographical questions.

They should understand natural systems and climate, and be able to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the ways in which humans affect their environments and vice versa.

"Geography uses a spatial perspective to study the arrangement of people and places over earth's space,'' the framework states. "By understanding and using a spatial perspective, students seek answers to the questions: What is it? Where is it? Why is it there? What is the significance of its location?''

Building on guidelines for teaching geography developed in 1984 by a joint committee of the National Council for Geographic Education and the Association of American Geographers, the framework divides the content of the assessment into three areas.

They are: "space and place,'' "environment and society,'' and "spatial dynamics and connections.'' The third category refers to connections between people and places and includes factors such as communications, transportation, and cultural and economic diversity, among others.

A typical test question in that content area, the framework suggests by way of example, might be: "Explain the motivations of modern-day Mexicans and Cubans for immigrating to the U.S.''

As evidenced by the question, a major focus of the framework is the contemporary nature of geography.

"There was a consensus that we were not going to get it taught if we don't focus on that aspect of geography,'' said Ms. Munroe. "Looking at the westward expansion is not going to help us understand what's going on in Kabul.''

Despite the stated importance in the document of computers to the field, however, the panel temporarily put aside an attempt to make computer applications more of a focus in the upcoming assessment.

"We wanted to recognize it was a tool, but we didn't want to make it a central tool,'' said James Marran, a planning-committee member and the chairman of the social-studies department at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill.

"We had to be realistic enough,'' he explained, "to recognize that not every school district in the U.S. is at the same place currently with computers.''

Vol. 11, Issue 34, Pages 1, 16

Published in Print: May 13, 1992, as Panel Paves Way To Test Students' Geography Skills
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