12th-graders still lack ba­sic un­der­stand­ing of U.S. his­tory

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

Younger stu­dents have made sig­nif­i­cant gains in their knowl­edge of his­tory in re­cent years, but Amer­i­can high school se­niors’ grasp of the nation’s past has shown vir tu­ally no im­prove­ment in the past two decades, ac­cord­ing to a ma­jor new na­tional sur­vey.

The Na­tional As­sess­ment of Ed­u­ca­tional Progress, an arm of the fed­eral Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment, re­leased its 2010 “re­port card” on his­tory June 14, and, while ex­perts are en­cour­aged that fourth-and eighth-graders know more than they did in years past, 12th-graders have shown lit­tle progress in their un­der­stand­ing of the U.S. role in global af­fairs, the con­cept of Amer­i­can democ­racy, tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs and other key ar­eas.

“All of these stu­dents are go­ing to be vot­ers in a year. [. . . ] They should be well in­formed,” said Diane Rav­itch, an ed­u­ca­tion pro­fes­sor at New York Univer­sity who par­tic­i­pated in a ques­tion-and-an­swer session with re­porters af­ter the sur­vey was re­leased.

For ex­am­ple, the sur­vey found that only 22 per­cent of 12thgraders could iden­tify China’s role dur­ing the Korean War. Most didn’t know that the coun­try backed North Korea dur­ing its fight with South Korea and the U.S. and its al­lies.

Other ques­tions fo­cused on the Civil War, the civil rights move­ment, col­o­niza­tion, the world wars and other events.

Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Arne Dun­can said he was dis­ap­pointed by the re­sults, the low­est of the seven sub­ject ar­eas tested by NAEP, which also pro­duces na­tional re­port cards on read­ing, math­e­mat­ics, science and other fields.

“These re­sults tell us that, as a coun­try, we are fail­ing to pro­vide chil­dren with a high-qual­ity, well-rounded ed­u­ca­tion,” Mr. Dun­can said in a state­ment.

NAEP con­ducted sim­i­lar sur­veys in 1994, 2001 and 2006, al­low­ing na­tional com­par­isons on an un­prece­dented scale. The study ranked stu­dents at three lev­els: ba­sic, pro­fi­cient and ad­vanced un­der­stand­ing of his­tory. It re­lied on writ­ten test re­sults from 7,000 fourth-graders, 11,800 eighth-graders and 12,400 high school se­niors.

Stu­dents were asked to re­spond to mul­ti­ple-choice and es­say ques­tions.

Fourth-and eighth-graders’ scores have risen steadily since 1994. That year, 64 per­cent of fourth-graders had at least a ba­sic knowl­edge of his­tory. In 2010, 73 per­cent achieved that mark. There has also been a 3 per­cent jump in the num­ber who are con­sid­ered pro­fi­cient, but no change in the ad­vanced des­ig­na­tion.

The same held true for eighth­graders. In 1994, 61 per­cent had a ba­sic un­der­stand­ing or bet­ter, but that num­ber has also climbed each test­ing year, hit­ting 69 per­cent in 2010. The num­ber con­sid­ered pro­fi­cient has risen from 14 per­cent to 17 per­cent, though NAEP of­fi­cials stress that im­prove­ments that small are within the sur­vey’s sta­tis­ti­cal mar­gin of er­ror.

Twelfth-graders, on the other hand, haven’t kept up with their younger coun­ter­parts. There has been no sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in the num­ber of high school se­niors with a ba­sic grasp of his­tory since 1994, when 43 per­cent hit the mark, the re­port states. There also has been no change in the num­ber con­sid­ered pro­fi­cient or ad­vanced.

Some ex­perts be­lieve more uni­form cur­ric­ula across the coun­try could help, but un­like math and read­ing, at­ti­tudes among ed­u­ca­tors dif­fer across the nation on what should be em­pha­sized in his­tory class­rooms.

“We’ll never be able to agree” on his­tory stan­dards na­tion­wide, said Steven L. Paine, a mem­ber of the Na­tional As­sess­ment Gov­ern­ing Board, a 26-mem­ber panel which sets poli­cies for NAEP.

The re­port also found that mi­nor­ity stu­dents, most no­tably blacks and His­pan­ics, have closed the gap with white stu­dents in re­cent years. But that, too, is pri­mar­ily lim­ited to fourth-and eighth-graders.

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