“U.S. History: Our Worst Subject?” That was the catchy title of a hearing on Capitol Hill late last month. By the end of it, a panel of experts and several senators had pretty much agreed that the answer was yes.
Among the panelists was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough, who warned of a dire future for the country when children are ignorant of such basics as the Declaration of Independence and the meaning of the Fourth of July.
“We are raising children who don’t know who George Washington was,” said Mr. McCullough, whose best-selling books include 1776, John Adams, and Truman.
The June 30 hearing held by Sen. Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the subcommittee on education and early childhood development, was on a bill that would create a pilot program in 10 states to test 8th and 12th graders in U.S. history and civics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Students are periodically tested in those subjects on NAEP now, but only as part of a limited, nationwide sample of students in grades 4, 8, and 12.
The goal, according to Sen. Alexander, R-Tenn., and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who are the bill’s sponsors, is to gain a clearer picture of which states do a good job of teaching history and which states don’t. NAEP data on U.S. history are not currently reported by state.
NAEP scores in 2001 showed that nearly half of 4th graders tested could not identify a passage from the Declaration of Independence, and that nearly half of 8th graders did not know the significance of the summer of 1776.
“Asking our children to be productive citizens without teaching them history is like asking someone to be quarterback without teaching him to throw,” Sen. Alexander said.
Jeffrey Passe, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, based in Silver Spring, Md., said comparing how students are learning history in different states is difficult.
“Each state does its own kind of testing—it is like comparing apples and oranges,” he said in an interview. The quality of NAEP questions makes the assessment more suitable than state tests for such a project, he added. And history has lost ground in recent years to reading and mathematics, for which students must be tested under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, he said.
“As much as we endorse the teaching of literacy and math, we can’t neglect citizenship development, because we have a democracy built upon it,” he said.