NAEP History Repeats Itself: Flat Scores Except 8th Grade

June 14, 2011 6 min read

The nation’s 8th graders posted gains in American history achievement compared with four years ago, new data show, but only a small minority, 17 percent, were rated “proficient” or higher in the subject.

The increase appears to be largely explained by advances seen among black and Hispanic students on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, at the 4th and 12th grades, history essentially repeated itself, with no statistically significant changes since 2006. Just 12 percent of seniors and 20 percent of 4th graders scored at least proficient.

In fact, more than half of all 12th graders scored below the “basic” level on NAEP, known as “the nation’s report card.”

Diane Ravitch, a research professor at New York University who was invited by the National Assessment Governing Board to comment on the findings, noted in a prepared statement that history achievement lagged that of the most recent results for math, reading, science, civics, writing, and geography when measured by the percentages of students scoring proficient or “advanced.”

“The results of this assessment tell us that we as a nation must pay more attention to the teaching of U.S. history,” said Ms. Ravitch, who co-authors an opinion blog hosted by the Education Week website. “We should make sure that there is time for it in the school day, that those who teach it have a strong history education.”

Looking at longer-term trends, the new report draws attention to data indicating that some of the largest gains in U.S. history over time have come from the lowest-performing subset of 4th graders. From 1994—when the test was first given—to 2010, the average scores of the bottom 10th percentile climbed 22 points, on a zero-to-500-point scale. The lowest-performers’ results increased 4 points since 2006, though that figure is not statistically significant.

Black and Hispanic 4th graders have made larger gains since the 1994 assessment than their white counterparts. Hispanic students overall climbed 23 points since 1994, blacks 22 points, and whites gained 9 points.

Minority Achievement

The U.S. history NAEP seeks to measure how well students are learning American history and whether they can evaluate historical evidence and understand change and continuity over time, according to the new report. Administered to a nationally representative sample of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, the exam serves up a mix of multiple-choice and constructed-response questions. This is the fourth time the history exam has been given.

Examples of test items used in 2010 include:

• 4th grade: Write the letter for each event listed below in the correct square on this time line: a) Jamestown is founded, b) the United States Constitution is written, c) Christopher Columbus sails to the Americas; and d) Abraham Lincoln announces the Emancipation Proclamation. (Nineteen percent got a “complete” response).

• 8th grade: Identify one important advantage that the American forces had over the British forces in the American Revolution. (Thirty-two percent gave a complete response.)

• 12th grade: During the Korean War, United Nations forces made up largely of troops from the United States and South Korea fought against troops from North Korea and a) the Soviet Union, b) Japan, c) China, d) Vietnam. (Twenty-two percent answered (c) correctly.)

With regard to the improvements seen since 1994 for black and Hispanic 4th graders, the data show, for example, that the percentage of black students performing at basic or above climbed from 34 percent in 1994 to 55 percent in 2010.

For Hispanic students, the pattern was similar. The percentage at basic or above grew from 36 percent to 56 percent over that time period.

Both black and Hispanic 4th graders saw gains since 2006, but the gains were not statistically significant.

Better Readers?

Despite the improvements, those figures were still well below the results for white 4th graders, who climbed from 74 percent basic or above in 1994 to 83 percent in 2010.

In her statement, Ms. Ravitch suggested that while the improvements among the lowest-scoring groups on NAEP were “good news,” they might not mean those students are better historians.

“I suspect that the gains reflect an improvement in reading skills, not an improvement in knowledge of history,” she said.

She also drew special attention to the low scores for high school seniors.

“It should concern us all that 12th graders’ knowledge of history has barely changed since 2001,” she said. “All of these students will be voters in a year, and almost 40 percent were already eligible to vote when they took the assessment. ... They should be well informed and capable of weighing the contending claims of candidates, especially when the candidates rest their arguments on historical precedent.”

NAGB board member Steven L. Paine, a former state superintendent in West Virginia, also expressed concern about the results for seniors.

“For every NAEP U.S. history assessment since 1994, over half of 12th graders scored below basic,” he said in a statement.

At the same time, he pointed to statistics suggesting many elementary-level students are not being exposed to much U.S. history. Only about 45 percent of 4th graders had teachers who spent more than two hours a week on social studies in their classrooms, Mr. Paine noted, based on survey data collected by NAEP.

He said he’d like to see a higher percentage of classroom time devoted to history, arguing that it’s critical to engage students in the elementary grades “so we can build a strong foundation in U.S. history.”

The new report also made some connections between NAEP scores and students who have taken Advanced Placement courses. On average, the score for 12th graders who reported either having completed or being currently enrolled in an AP U.S. history course was 20 points higher than those who said they had not taken the course.

The four historical themes driving the NAEP assessment, according to a NAGB press release, were:

• Democracy, including basic principles and core values developed from the American Revolution through present day;

• Culture, focusing on how different racial, ethnic, and religious groups interacted and the traditions that resulted;

• Technology, with an emphasis on the transformation of America’s economy from rural frontier to industrial superpower and technology’s impact on society, ideas, and the environment; and

• World role, looking at the movement of America from isolationism to worldwide responsibility.

The report aims to provide some indication of what type of knowledge and understanding would be paired with the different labels attached to scores, from basic to advanced.

At grade 12, for instance, the 45 percent of students scoring basic or above were likely to be able to understand the context of a women’s-movement document or interpret a Cold War cartoon. The 12 percent who scored at or above proficient were likely to be able to understand Missouri’s application for statehood in the context of sectionalism, and the U.S. entry into World War I. And the 1 percent who scored advanced were likely to be able to evaluate arguments about the Civil War and the use of the Atomic bomb in World War II.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as NAEP History Repeats Itself: Flat Scores Sans 8th Grade


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