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Students’ grasp of US history lags

From presidents to precedents, knowledge sparse

By Sam Dillon
The New York Times / June 15, 2011

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NEW YORK — US students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject, according to results of a nationwide test released yesterday, with most fourth-graders unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure, and few high school seniors able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought US troops in the Korean War.

Overall, 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders, and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Federal education officials said they were encouraged by a slight increase in eighth-grade scores since the last time the history test was administered, in 2006. But even those gains offered little to celebrate, with fewer than a third of eighth-graders able to answer even a “seemingly easy question’’ asking them to identify an important advantage that the American forces had over the British during the Revolutionary War, the government’s statement on the results said.

Diane Ravitch, an education historian who was invited by the national assessment’s governing board to review the results, said she was particularly disturbed by only 2 percent of 12th-graders correctly answering a question concerning Brown v. Board of Education, which she called “very likely the most important decision’’ of the US Supreme Court in the past seven decades.

Students were given an excerpt including the passage “We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place, separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,’’ and were asked what social problem the 1954 ruling was supposed to correct.

“The answer was right in front of them,’’ Ravitch said. “This is alarming.’’

The tests were given last spring to a representative sample of 7,000 fourth-graders, 11,800 eighth-graders and 12,400 12th-graders nationwide. History is one of eight subjects — along with math, reading, science, writing, civics, geography, and economics — covered by the assessment program also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

The program defines three achievement levels for each test: “basic’’ denotes partial mastery of a subject; “proficient’’ represents solid academic performance and a demonstration of competency over challenging subject matter; and “advanced’’ means superior performance.

The students did best in economics: 42 percent of high school seniors were deemed proficient in the 2006 economics test, a larger proportion than in any other subject over the past decade. But Jack Buckley, commissioner of the statistical center at the Department of Education that carries out the tests, said that because the assessments in each subject were prepared and administered independently, it was not really fair to compare results across subjects.

On the history test, the proportion of students scoring at or above proficiency rose among fourth-graders to 20 percent from 18 percent in 2006, held at 17 percent among eighth-graders, and fell to 12 percent from 13 percent among high school seniors.

On the test’s 500-point scale, average fourth- and eighth-grade scores each increased 3 points since 2006. But officials said only the eighth-grade increase, to 266 last year from 263 in 2006, was statistically significant. Average 12th-grade scores dropped to 288 from 290 in 2006.

While changes in the overall averages were small, there was significant upward movement among the lowest-performing students — those in the 10th percentile — in fourth and eighth grades, and a narrowing of the racial achievement gap at all levels. On average, white eighth-grade students scored 274 on the latest test, 21 points higher than Hispanic students and 23 points above black students; in 2006, white students outperformed Hispanic students by 23 points and black students by 29 points.

History-education advocates contend that poor showings on the tests underline neglect shown the subject by policy makers, especially after the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act began requiring schools to raise scores in math and reading but in no other subject. The federal accountability law, advocates say, has given schools and teachers an incentive to spend less time on history and other subjects.

“History is very much being shortchanged,’’ said Linda K. Salvucci, a history professor in San Antonio who is chairwoman-elect of the National Council for History Education.

Many teacher-education programs, she said, also contribute to the problem by encouraging aspiring teachers to seek certification in social studies rather than in history.