Proficiency in Social Studies Eludes Most U.S. Students

By Erik W. Robelen — July 20, 2011 3 min read
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Rounding out a set of student-achievement data in the social studies, new test scores for geography arrived yesterday, and as with civics and U.S. history, the results offer reason to suggest the United States—to borrow a phrase from an EdWeek headline—may be losing its way.

Actually, it might be better to say we’ve never really found our way in geography. Dating back to when the NAEP geography exam was first administered, in 1994, fewer than one-third of students at any of the grade levels tested, 4th, 8th, or 12th, have scored “proficient” or above. In fact, the same is true for U.S. history and civics. At no grade level has proficiency even reached 30 percent. (The economics exam is next scheduled for 2012.)

One piece of good news in geography is that 4th graders did improve over 2001, when they last took the exam. But even so, only one in five, 21 percent, were proficient or above.

Average performance at the 8th and 12th grade was flat. Overall, 27 percent of 8th graders scored at least proficient in geography, and 20 percent of seniors did. In fact, the average scores for seniors have actually declined from 1994. (To get into the nitty-gritty, the percentage of students scoring proficient or above dropped by a statistically significant margin both in 2001 and again in 2010.)

The EdWeek story from yesterday quotes Daniel Edelson from the National Geographic Society as suggesting the results were disappointing but not surprising.

“This is not the first of the wake-up calls about the state of geography education,” he said. “The basic story here is that we have not invested in geography education at all in the last decade. Both for workforce preparedness and national security, there are big costs to neglecting geography education.”

So, let’s take a look at all the recent results for social studies together. I’ll focus on the figures for students scoring proficient or above from all three exams administered in 2010:

4th grade:
• 21 percent in geography
• 27 percent in civics
• 20 percent in U.S. history

8th grade:
• 27 percent in geography
• 22 percent in civics
• 17 percent in U.S. history

12th grade:
• 20 percent in geography
• 24 percent in civics
• 12 percent in U.S. history

None of these outcomes is exactly inspiring. The weakest performance across the board is in U.S. history, especially for seniors. Only 12 percent of test-takers in 2010 were at least proficient.

Here are my stories on the civics and U.S. history results.

I’ll leave it to others to offer explanations for the low proficiency rates, but certainly a few issues come to mind: Are many schools neglecting social studies? Do teachers in these subjects lack adequate preparation? Is the NAEP definition of proficient reasonable or, as some critics have suggested, is the bar set too high? (The NAEP geography report says the proficient level “represents solid academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter.”)

If there’s any encouraging news in the data, it’s when you dig deeper. As with both civics and U.S. history, in geography there is evidence that black and Hispanic students are beginning to close the achievement gap with their white peers in some instances.

The black-white gap was narrowed at both the 4th and 8th grades, while it was narrowed at the 8th grade for Hispanics. For example, the gap on the NAEP’s 500-point scale declined by 20 points since 1994 between black and white 4th graders. (That said, only 5 percent black 4th graders scored proficient or above.)

Last month, I devoted a blog post to the shrinking achievement gap in U.S. history. But some experts have cautioned that this doesn’t necessarily mean black and Hispanic students are becoming better historians. It may well be that, especially with 4th graders, these students simply have improved their reading skills. Perhaps the same is true with geography.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.