Students Fall Short in NAEP Geography Test

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The results from the first wide-scale test of what U.S. students know about world geography show that a lot of them fall short of the mountaintop.

About three out of every 10 students who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress in geography were unable to reach even the "basic" level showing partial mastery of the subject describing the world's places and peoples.

Only about one-fourth of the students demonstrated that they were "proficient," or had a solid understanding of the subject matter. And just 2 percent to 4 percent of students, depending on their grade levels, fell in the "advanced" range.

The results of the test, given in 1994 to students in grades 4, 8, and 12, were released by the Department of Education at a news conference at the National Geographic Society's headquarters here.

Students who did the best on the exam were from the central portion of the country, were white or Asian, male, attended private schools, and had parents who were well-educated.

Just 27 percent of seniors, at the end of their high school careers, were able to reach the proficient-level score of 305 or better out of a possible 500 points. Those students had to be able to do such tasks as describe the major cultural and physical features of the globe and interpret maps and case studies to discuss economic, political, and social factors that define various areas of the world.

Known as "the nation's report card," NAEP is the only national, ongoing assessment of students' academic achievement. Mandated by Congress, it has been given in various subjects to representative samplings of students since 1969. It is a project of the Education Department and is conducted under a contract with the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service.

The achievement levels represent goals for what students ideally should know and were established by the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for naep, after consultation with classroom teachers, geography specialists, administrators, and others.

Overall, students did about the same as they do on the NAEP tests in reading and mathematics. Geography is not nearly as widely taught as either of those subjects.

In announcing the results, several education officials described the test as rigorous, and indeed it went far beyond a quiz on world capitals and river names. About 60 percent of the test time was devoted to questions requiring written answers; the rest of the test was multiple choice.

Students were asked to analyze maps and graphs and to think about the ways people interact with their environments. Based on sample questions provided at last week's news conference, bar graphs, especially, seemed to throw students for a loop.

Because this was the first time such a test had been given to students in three grades--a pilot exam was given to seniors in 1988--there were no trend data to show whether students posted gains or losses.

'Cause for Concern'

Some education officials were upbeat about the results, while others were less pleased.

"I am encouraged by the results of this tough new test and believe that our young people are getting the message that they are part of a much larger world," Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in releasing the results. But, he added, "We still must do better to match the rigors of this new exam."

William J. Moloneycqspell, who sits on the assessment governing board and is the superintendent of the Calvert County, Md., schools, said that even though he thought students were not geographically illiterate, the 30 percent of seniors who did not show a basic understanding of the subject "should be a cause for serious concern."

Gilbert M. Grosvenor, the president of the National Geographic Society, which has put $80 million into geography education in the past decade, said students were beginning to become good geographers. But, he said, "We're not at the head of the class yet, not by a stretch."

Secretary Riley also emphasized how important it is for students to know geography as satellite-television links and computer connections effectively shrink the globe. "It makes no sense for a young student here in America to be on the World Wide Web interacting with a student from a far-off land without having a clear sense of the location and geography of that connection."

Explaining Differences

Some students have a fix on the world, but many do not.

About three out of four 12th-grade students were able to identify Rome, Jerusalem, Mecca, and Benares as religious centers on a multiple-choice question. However, only about half of students could say that automobiles were the factor that most affected the development of suburbs in the United States in the past 50 years. And just one in 10 were able to say, when given the choice among Japan, Great Britain, Canada, and Germany, that Canada was the country that had the largest volume and value of trade with the United States.

How well-educated their parents were had a striking correlation with how well the students knew geography. Among the 8th and 12th graders--who were best able to describe their parents' education levels--students who reported that at least one parent had graduated from college averaged 7 and 8 points higher, respectively, than those whose parents had only some education after high school.

Scoring differences were even larger between the groups of students whose parents graduated from college and those who had graduated from high school but not attended college. Across grade levels, the students with college-graduate parents on average scored 20 points higher than their peers with parents who were only high school graduates.

Mr. Riley said he was concerned that black students' scores were the lowest among the major racial and ethnic groups. Poverty and a "lack of connection" may help explain the phenomenon, he said, adding that it was important to remind young people about the geography-related pursuits of such prominent African-Americans as surveyor Benjamin Banneker and explorer Matthew Henson.

A more comprehensive report analyzing the NAEP results is to be released by the Education Department by the end of the year.

Vol. 15, Issue 08

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