U.S. History Again Stumps Senior Class

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 15, 2002 8 min read
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For the second time in seven years, American high school students turned in what officials described as an “abysmal” or “awful” performance on the national assessment in U.S. history, with nearly 60 percent of test-takers failing to demonstrate even basic knowledge and understanding of the subject, according to the test results released here last week.

Download the complete report, “The Nation’s Report Card: U.S. History 2001,” from the NCES History page. Or browse the executive summary. Read sample questions. (The full report requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

At the same time, 4th and 8th graders who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed signs of improvement, though only small percentages of those younger students showed proficiency in the challenging subject matter.

“Too many of our public school children are still struggling in this critical core subject, ... and the higher the grade in school, the lower their understanding of history,” Secretary of Education Rod Paige said at a press conference held May 9 to release the results. “The questions that stumped so many students involve the most fundamental concepts of our democracy, our growth as a nation, and our role in the world.”

NAEP, called the nation’s report card, is regularly given to a representative sample of students throughout the country to gauge what they know in various subjects. The history test was taken last year by a total 29,000 students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. The test was last given in 1994 using the same framework, meaning the two sets of results can be compared. The tests covered eight time periods between 1607 and the present and focused on four historical themes: change and continuity in American democracy; the gathering and interactions of peoples, cultures, and ideas; economic and technological changes; and the changing role of America in the world.

Some Improvement

Since 1994, the performance of 4th and 8th graders improved slightly. Those younger students scored an average 209 points on a 500-point scale, a gain of 4 points over the previous test. The lowest-performing students showed the greatest gains among 4th graders. Eighth graders also progressed, with the average scale score among that group rising from 259 to 262.

Seniors, meanwhile, scored an average of 287, about the same as in 1994.

“High school seniors registered truly abysmal scores,” said Diane Ravitch, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board,which sets policy for NAEP. “Since the seniors are very close to voting age, or already have reached it, one can only feel alarm that they know so little about their nation’s history and express so little capacity to reflect on its meaning.”

When students were tested in history during the 1980s—using a substantially different test—high schoolers performed similarly. Of all the subjects in which NAEP is given, high school students have the highest rate of failure in U.S. history.

In addition to test scores, the national assessment identifies students’ achievement levels in the subject. The standards for reaching the “basic,” “proficient,” or “advanced” levels are considered rigorous, and federal officials view them as a useful gauge of what students know in a given subject.

But the achievement levels have not been deemed “reasonable, valid, and informative,” so they are being used on a trial basis. The tests require students to demonstrate factual knowledge, understanding of the subject matter, and an ability to synthesize and apply it, with more difficult questions or tasks for older students.

Few students at any of the grade levels, however, proved they are proficient—or can show competence in handling challenging subject matter—in U.S. history. Of the 7,000 4th graders tested, 18 percent demonstrated proficiency or advanced knowledge, while 49 percent were at the basic level. Among the sample of 11,300 8th graders, 17 percent were deemed proficient or advanced, and 48 percent were considered to be at the basic level.

Of the 11,300 high school seniors, just 11 percent were proficient or advanced, while 57 percent did not even reach the basic level.

Most 12th graders, for example, did not know that the Progressive era of 1890 to 1920 was characterized by “a broad-based reform movement that tried to reduce the abuses that had come with modernization and industrialization.” Just 36 percent of the test-takers answered that multiple- choice question correctly. On one question requiring a written response, just 39 percent of seniors could adequately describe two advantages the South had over the Union Army during the Civil War. In a question asking students to identify on a map which explorers charted certain parts of the New World, only 16 percent of 4th graders were able to do so adequately. And fewer than a third of 8th graders could completely describe the steel plow’s historical role in improved farming.

Some promising news, however, emerged in the performance of some minority students. African-American 4th graders, for example, improved significantly, from an average of 177 points in 1994 to 188 on the recent test. The gain was enough to reduce the gap in scores between those students and white test-takers in that grade from 38 points in 1994 to 31 points in 2001.

Hispanic high school students, meanwhile, showed gains sufficient to narrow the scoring gap with their non-Hispanic white classmates from 26 points on the previous test to 19 points. The gaps among other groups of students did not narrow.

Apportioning Blame

While the NAEP report does not draw any conclusions about the reasons for the disappointing results, academic experts and educators offered their own answers. Their targets ranged from inadequate licensing requirements for history teachers to less time spent on history and social studies as schools feel pressure to improve achievement in mathematics, science, and reading.

“The two fields taught in school with the highest percentage of out-of-field teachers are history and physics,” said Ms. Ravitch, who served as an assistant secretary of education under former President Bush in the early 1990s. A history scholar herself, Ms. Ravitch maintained that there is no excuse for teachers of U.S. history not to be required to study the subject extensively in college. She suggested that many districts overlook the lack of preparation of many history teachers because they also tend to coach athletic teams.

More than half of high school students in a national survey conducted a decade ago were enrolled in history classes taught by teachers who did not major or minor in the subject. That finding is expected to hold true when the results of a similar federal survey are unveiled later this year.

Some history teachers attribute the poor results primarily to the reduced emphasis on history and social studies in the curriculum. As states put more pressure on districts and schools to raise student achievement in other core subjects, history and social studies, which are not tested as often as math, science, reading, and writing, are being pushed to the margins, those teachers say. (“Concentration on Reading, Math Troubles Social Studies Educators,” Feb. 20, 2002.)

“The NAEP data show that where more time was spent teaching social studies in school, the scores were higher,” said Kay Knowles, a U.S. history teacher at James River High School in Midlothian, Va. As part of the 2001 test, students were asked questions about how the subject was taught and how much time was spent in class learning history.

“You have history that is ongoing and added to every year,” Ms. Knowles said, “yet we are still teaching in the same time frame that we did 100 years ago.”

Studies have suggested that teachers adjust the balance of their instruction in favor of subjects that are tested, particularly if educators are held accountable for the results.

Still another factor, some experts say, is that too few states have adopted rigorous academic standards in history. According to the American Federation of Teachers’ latest report on state standards, just seven states have social studies standards that are clear, specific, and grounded in content. Most states, though, have devised such guidelines in other subjects, including English, math, and science.

Value-Neutral Questions?

The assessment is scheduled to be administered again in 2010. The NAEP governing board, known as NAGB, will consider whether to adopt a new framework for that assessment, which would make comparisons of student performance over time more difficult. World history is scheduled to be tested for the first time in 2006. Other changes for the NAEP are expected under new federal legislation that requires NAGB to take steps to ensure that future questions are “secular, neutral, and nonideological.” Some educators have questioned whether that can be done, particularly in American history.

But some experts say the law only prohibits advocacy of particular issues and does not necessarily require that questions be “value neutral.”

“The questions may indeed tap some matters of values, particularly of democratic values,” said John J. Patrick, the director of the Social Studies Development Center at Indiana University, who was on the committee that planned the current NAEP history framework. “Value-loading is inevitably present in a subject like history.”

The 1994 test, which included geography, had at least one question that might not meet the new standard. The question, which asked students to describe the effects strip-mining might have on the environment, could be interpreted as having a bias against the industry unless it also required students to gauge its potential economic benefits.

The governing board plans to debate what the new requirements will mean for future tests in all subjects at its regular meeting scheduled for this week.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2002 edition of Education Week as U.S. History Again Stumps Senior Class


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