Standards

Majority of States Get Poor Grades on History Standards

By Michelle D. Anderson — February 22, 2011 3 min read
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A majority of states received failing or near-failing grades on the quality of their standards for teaching history in K-12 schools, according to the latest review from the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

In “The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011,” the research and advocacy group says the average grade across all states was barely a D. The majority—28 states—received scores of D or lower and only one state, South Carolina, earned a straight-A score.

“If students are not going to get the history in K-12, they’re not going to get it at all,” said Sheldon M. Stern, a historian formerly with the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston and a study co-author. Since Fordham’s last such review in 2003, 45 states have changed their history standards. While some states improved, others worsened. Delaware, for instance,tumbled from a B to an F, while the District of Columbia jumped from an F to an A-minus.

Besides the District of Columbia, five states earned an A-minus rating: Alabama, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, and New York. Oklahoma, Georgia, and Michigan are the three states that earned ratings in the B range. Because it has not implemented statewide social studies standards, Rhode Island did not receive a grade.

But officials in some of those low-scoring states and critics of the Fordham study said the poor ratings owe largely to differences between the institute and various states on how American history is best taught, what it should cover, and how detailed the curricula should be in elementary, middle, and high school.

“The authors seem to want a prescribed and detailed U.S. history curriculum for every state, and this is constitutionally impossible in Colorado,” said Fritz Fischer, a professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado and the chairman of the National Council for History Education. Under the state’s constitution, Colorado officials are prohibited from dictating curricula to school districts, he said. Colorado was one of the states given a failing grade in the report.

“The authors appear to be attracted to lists of names, dates, and events at the expense of standards that require students to develop an in-depth understanding of historical concepts and ideas,” said Mr. Fischer, who also advises Colorado state education officials on teaching social studies.

However, Fordham’s president, Chester E. Finn Jr., said its analysis is about making sure students have a firm grasp of historical facts before developing historical concepts and ideas. “You have to get the bricks before you can get the mortar,” he said.

Lack of Emphasis

The review looked at multiple factors to determine in rating the quality of state standards. They favored, for instance, standards that offered chronological overviews of historical content rather than “ahistoric themes” and those that recognized both the nation’s European origins and the roles and contributions of non-Western people.

The ratings come as schools are allotting less time to history instruction, according to figures released by the National Center for Education Statistics, and some states do not require testing in that subject. Critics often cite the federal No Child Left Behind Act for contributing to de-emphasizing the subject because of its initial focus on mathematics and reading.

The study also reviews the framework for the National Assessment of Education Progress in U.S. history, giving it an A-minus.

State education officials in Texas, which received a D, said they thought the state’s rating was based on misinformation.

Fordham criticized the state’s “rigidly thematic and theory-based social studies structure” and said it offered a “politicized distortion of history.”

The report takes issue with the state’s standards for obscuring complex historical issues and dismissing the history of separation between church and state. The report also cites the absence of Native-American and African-American history and suggests that the state focuses too much on celebrating “the free-enterprise system and its benefits.”

Gail Lowe, the chairwoman of the Texas state board of education, disagrees that the state has ignored slavery, segregation, and native people.

“It is not possible to teach American and Texas history without covering these topics,” Ms. Lowe said. She also noted that the Texas Education Code requires the state to teach the free-enterprise system and its benefits.

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as Majority of States Get Poor Grades on History Standards

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