Students Post Dismal Results On History Test

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For U.S. students, a song from America's past may best describe their knowledge of it: "Don't know much about history."

The Department of Education released results here last week from last year's nationwide test of what 4th, 8th, and 12th graders know about U.S. history. The findings were so discouraging that the allusion to the 1965 Sam Cooke tune "Wonderful World" was one even Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley could not help making.

"It's clear, as the song says, students don't know much about history," Mr. Riley said in a statement accompanying the results.

The most gloomy finding that the National Assessment of Educational Progress uncovered was about 12th graders' grasp of history: 57 percent were not able to reach even the "basic" level of achievement, which shows only a partial mastery of the subject.

Just 11 percent of the 12th graders reached the "proficient" level on the test, which meant that they had a solid grasp of people, places, events, ideas, and documents in historical context and had some awareness of factors that shape historical settings. Most students take at least one U.S. history course in high school by the end of the 11th grade.

Contrary to the expectation that students' knowledge expands with exposure to the subject, younger students fared somewhat better than the 12th graders. More than six in 10 students in the 4th and 8th grades reached at least the basic level. And 17 percent of the 4th graders and 14 percent of the 8th graders attained the proficient level.

Across all the three grades, just 1 percent to 2 percent reached the advanced level. The remainder of students scored below the basic level: 36 percent of the 4th graders and 39 percent of the 8th graders.

Troubling Findings

"The results are deeply disturbing. I was shocked, really," said Maris A. Vinovskis, a professor of history at the University of Michigan who spoke at the Education Department news conference held to release the results.

As is the case on other NAEP tests, students at all grades did better if their parents had more education and if they were enrolled in private schools. Across all grades, white and Asian-American students had significantly higher scores than did black and Hispanic students, and students in the Northeast and Central regions did better than those in the Southeast.

Boys in 12th grade scored better on average than senior girls, but there was no such difference among the 4th and 8th graders.

The fact that only 19 percent of black seniors scored at or above the basic level was especially troubling, Mr. Vinovskis said. "We are facing a real crisis," he said.

The Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service administers the NAEP tests, also known as "the nation's report card," for the department's National Center for Education Statistics. Since 1969, the congressionally mandated assessment has been the only ongoing national survey of what students know about a variety of academic subjects. Last year, about 22,500 students took the history test.

Even though a national assessment was given in U.S. history in 1988, officials said the results are not comparable to those from the 1994 test. The exam was redone, complete with new test questions and new guiding principles, for 1994. But in 1988, officials also found that most seniors had only a limited knowledge of history.

Rigor and Camp David

On the new test, a majority of 4th graders knew that Susan B. Anthony helped women win the right to vote. But only 5 percent could imagine that they lived on the Western frontier and could give two reasons why Eastern friends should or should not come West.

Meanwhile, 69 percent of 8th graders and 65 percent of 12th graders knew that disease brought by the Europeans was the major cause of death among Indians in the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s. But only 14 percent of 8th graders and 27 percent of 12th graders knew that the Camp David accords negotiated by President Carter promoted peace between Egypt and Israel.

For the first time in a NAEP examination, the 12th graders' average score on the test--286 on a 500-point scale--fell below the cutoff designating a basic level of knowledge about the subject. The score would have to have been 294 in order to reach the basic level.

But, Mr. Riley and others pointed out, the new test is a tough one. In his statement, Mr. Riley said the history NAEP is "much more rigorous than what most students are used to seeing in school, requiring greater historical knowledge, more writing, and application of analytical skills."

About 60 percent of testing time was devoted to questions requiring students to write out answers; the rest were multiple choice.

The test reflects both the sense of the past and the ability to reason that students must have to make informed decisions in a democracy, said Sharon P. Robinson, the Education Department's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.

In order to reach the basic level on the history test, 12th graders, for example, had to accumulate 42 percent of the possible points. For a proficient designation, they had to amass 63 percent, and for the advanced level, 82 percent.

Those point percentages were comparable to those needed for seniors to reach the same achievement levels on last year's NAEP test in geography. But on that test, whose results were released last month, greater percentages of students were able to reach those levels; in some cases, the proportions were twice as large. (See Education Week, Oct. 25, 1995.)

Pointing to Standards

The National Assessment Governing Board sets the achievement levels for NAEP after an elaborate standards-setting process. Teachers, historians, curriculum specialists, administrators, and others nationwide participate in that process and forward recommendations to the board.

Before releasing the history results, the board debated whether to go along with the recommended achievement standards. William T. Randall, the board president and the education commissioner of Colorado, said in a written statement that the board decided to adopt the achievement levels in part because the results of the 1994 assessment seemed consistent with those from the 1988 test. Had the same standards been applied then, he said, "the results would have been similarly dismal."

The Education Department report detailing the results offers several explanations for why the students did so poorly. It cited differences in what is taught as U.S. history and students' possible unfamiliarity with the types of questions that appear on the test.

Mr. Vinovskis and Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education, said the test results point to the need for wide adoption of the beleaguered voluntary national content standards in history, which outline what students should know and be able to do in the subject.

A report with more analysis of the results is expected in January.

In related news, the Education Department has issued a revised version of its 1994 NAEP reading report that contains corrections for errors that occurred because of two technical glitches. (See Education Week, Sept. 27 and Oct. 4, 1995.)

Vol. 15, Issue 10

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