Seniors' History Scores `Abysmal'; Fourth- and Eighth-Graders Outperformed 12th-Graders in a National History Survey, with 57 Percent of Seniors Failing to Show `Basic' Knowledge of the Subject. (Education)

By Wetzstein, Cheryl | Insight on the News, June 10, 2002 | Go to article overview

Seniors' History Scores `Abysmal'; Fourth- and Eighth-Graders Outperformed 12th-Graders in a National History Survey, with 57 Percent of Seniors Failing to Show `Basic' Knowledge of the Subject. (Education)


Wetzstein, Cheryl, Insight on the News


History appears to be a mystery to American high-school seniors, according to a national "report card" released in May. Fewer than 30 percent of American high-school seniors knew the Tonkin Gulf Resolution authorized President Lyndon Johnson to expand the scope of the Vietnam War, for example. Only 34 percent knew Nat Turner's rebellion led Southern states to tighten control of slaves. Among fourth-graders, 68 percent thought California, Illinois or Texas was one of the original 13 Colonies.

These are "truly abysmal scores," said education expert Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University, during a Department of Education news conference. "All of us need to understand the ideas, traditions and the democratic values that unify our nation. This is not possible unless one has studied and learned the history of the United States."

The survey on U.S. history conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tested 29,000 fourth-, eighth- and 12th-grade children from some 1,100 public and private schools. Questions covered the exploration and colonization of America, the Revolutionary and Civil wars and World Wars I and II, as well as industrial, political and cultural expansions and reforms.

Fifty-seven percent of 12th-graders didn't answer enough questions correctly to achieve the survey's "basic" knowledge category (results are ranked in "basic," "proficient" or "advanced" levels). Moreover, the 12th-grade scores were unchanged from the NAEP history test given in 1994--indicating zero improvement in six years on the test of basic U.S. political, technological and cultural milestones.

Education Secretary Rod Paige saw a "glimmer of hope" in that both fourth-and eighth-graders improved their average scores: The fourth-grade average moved from 205 to 209 and the eighth-grade average moved from 259 to 262. (Scores run from 0 to 500.)

These improvements meant that, in 2001, 67 percent of fourth-graders and 64 percent of eighth-graders scored at "basic" or better levels, says Gary W. Phillips, deputy commissioner of education statistics at the National Center for Education Statistics, one of the groups that produce the NAEP surveys. Moreover, black fourth-graders performed better, reducing the "achievement gap" with whites to 31 points instead of the 38 points seen in 1994.

When asked about the "major cause" of the Civil War, 57 percent of all fourth-graders knew that it was a North-South dispute over slavery. More than half of eighth-graders-52 percent--knew that Roger Williams was forced to leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of a fight over religious beliefs.

Among 12th-graders, 68 percent correctly identified the Harlem Renaissance as a 1920s period of achievements in black art, literature and music. Far fewer seniors, though, could explain the ramifications of an early section in the U.S. Constitution that counted the population as "the whole number of free persons, three-fifths of other persons." Only 21 percent knew that the passage affected the counting of black slaves and the makeup of the House of Representatives in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Despite improvements among fourth-and eighth-graders, the students' performance is "unacceptable," says Paige, adding that under the Bush administration's education reform, school leaders will need to focus on accountability and results. NAEP surveys do not explain why students perform as they do. The 2001 history survey, however, indicated that getting more than 180 minutes a week in social studies was linked to good scores among fourth-graders, and almost-daily reading of social-studies textbooks and using computers to research and write history reports was beneficial.

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Seniors' History Scores `Abysmal'; Fourth- and Eighth-Graders Outperformed 12th-Graders in a National History Survey, with 57 Percent of Seniors Failing to Show `Basic' Knowledge of the Subject. (Education)
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