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US students still struggle to grasp world geography

By Winnie Hu
New York Times / July 20, 2011

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NEW YORK - Even as schools aim to better prepare students for a global workforce, fewer than one in three US students are proficient in geography, with most eighth-graders unable to explain what causes earthquakes or accurately describe the American Southwest, according to a report released yesterday morning.

Overall, high school seniors demonstrated the least proficiency on a 2010 test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation’s geography report card, with 20 percent found to be proficient or better, compared with 27 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of fourth-graders.

The average score for 12th-graders declined to 282 (on a scale of 500) from 284 in 2001 when the test was last given. It was essentially unchanged for eighth-graders in that period, though there were gains among the lowest-performing students. Fourth-graders had the largest gains, with the average score rising five points from 2001.

“Geography is not just about maps,’’ said David P. Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, who expressed concern that students were not doing better. “It is a rich and varied discipline that, now more than ever, is vital to understanding the connections between our global economy, environment, and diverse cultures.’’

The report found that boys scored higher in all three grades and that the average scores for black and Hispanic students in fourth and eighth grades were higher than in earlier tests.

Roger M. Downs, a geography professor at Pennsylvania State University, said that he is encouraged by the improving test scores for fourth-graders and low-performing and minority students but is concerned that “geography’s role in the curriculum is limited and, at best, static.’’

“That is ironic given the convincing case that can be made for the importance of geographic literacy,’’ Downs said. “But it is doubly ironic given a world in which adults and now children have smartphones and tablets that can download maps on the fly, provide directions to places, and give your location to your friends.’’

The tests were given to 7,000 fourth-graders, 9,500 eighth-graders, and 10,000 12th-graders. The assessment program, which evaluates student progress in geography and eight other subjects, also recently released scores in civics and history.

The geography test rated students based partly on knowledge of space and place, as well as environment, society, and spatial dynamics and connections.

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