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U.S. Pupils Lost in Geography, NAEP Shows

Gaps narrow, but proficiency still elusive

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About one in three American 4th graders can read a compass rose well enough to identify basic map regions, and more than half know that the Great Plains have more farming than fishing or mining, according to the latest federal assessment of geography.

That was the good news.

The National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the test, released results in July for the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress in geography. It found that 4th graders scored on average 213 out of a possible 500, an “all-time high” since the test started in 1994. But the rising scores have not translated to more students moving from “basic” to “proficient” performance on the test, and the percentage of students achieving at the “advanced” level has gone down in every grade. Similarly, average 8th grade scores have remained flat, at 282, and in 12th grade, average scores have dropped from 285 in 1994 and 2001 to 282 in 2010, which is deemed a significant decline.

Achievement Levels

Since 1994, there’s been no upward movement in the proportion of students reaching the “proficient” level on the geography NAEP.

In a bright spot, achievement gaps between black and white students have narrowed by 20 points in grade 4 and by 9 points in grade 8 since 1994.

“What we’re starting to do is draw attention to the fact that this is a strategically important issue,” said Daniel Edelson, the vice president of education at the Washington-based National Geographic Society. “This is not the first of the wake-up calls about the state of geography education. The basic story here is that we have not invested in geography education at all in the last decade.”

The geography report is the third this year looking at American students’ social studies knowledge, following civics and history reports released in May and June. All three studies paint a mostly lackluster portrait of social studies proficiency, as well as a small, persistent gender gap across social studies subjects. In geography, boys outperformed girls by 4 to 5 points across grades.

NCES Commissioner Sean P. "Jack" Buckley said the most recent geography assessment tried to go beyond basic recitation of place names to gauge students problem-solving abilities and understanding of the connections between physical places and their societies. Yet he and other experts suggested the 4th grade gains may be the result of rising literacy more than specific content knowledge.

Vol. 30, Issue 37, Page 6

Published in Print: August 10, 2011, as U.S. Pupils Lost in Geography, NAEP Shows
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