The nation’s students have received a dismal report card in American history: Nearly six in 10 high school seniors apparently lack even a basic understanding of the subject.
That conclusion is part of the most comprehensive federal survey ever made of how well students know American history, which was released Wednesday by the Education Department. Fourth and eighth graders also scored poorly, with more than a third lacking basic skills.
The test, which was given to more than 22,000 public and private school students from around the country last year, showed that many of them either did not know basic facts in American history or often struggled when asked to describe their significance.
Only 40 percent of all fourth graders who were tested knew, for example, why the Pilgrims came to America. About 60 percent of high school seniors could not define the Monroe Doctrine, and less than half of them knew that containing communism was the chief goal of American foreign policy after World War II. Only 27 percent knew that the Camp David accords promoted peace between Egypt and Israel.
“It’s clear, as the song says, students ‘don’t know much about history,”’ Education Secretary Richard W. Riley said in a statement.
Riley and other educators offered no immediate explanation for why the student scores were so low. Some wondered whether the test was too difficult or graded too harshly; the education department said it was not. Others suggested that schools are not teaching history enough or only asking students to memorize historical names, facts and dates without explaining what role they have had in the evolution of American life.
But education officials agreed that the results were stark evidence of why schools need better standards for teaching history - which has been the subject of intense political and academic debate for months.
Last fall, a national panel of historians produced an extensive guide for how schools should teach American history, but that work was denounced in Congress and by many conservative political groups for allegedly putting too much emphasis on the negative aspects of American life and promoting minorities at the expense of other American heroes. The standards are now being reviewed and revamped.
“While the disputes go on about how to teach U.S. history, the message of today’s national assessment report is clear,” said William T. Randall, the chairman of the board that oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which administered the history test. “Most American students - even high school seniors - have only a limited grasp of their country’s past.”
NAEP tests are widely regarded by educators to be one of the best barometers of student achievement because they are rigorous and are administered to a nationally representative sample of students.
The history test was divided into two parts. There were multiple-choice questions about facts, and open-ended questions that required students to write a few sentences and apply their reasoning skills.
Students were graded on a scale from 0 to 500 and their scores were placed into one of four achievement levels.
Only one of every 100 high school seniors reached the advanced level. Only 10 percent of them were considered proficient in American history. Fifty-seven percent of them did not show basic understanding of the subject.
xxxx SAMPLE HISTORY QUESTIONS Some examples of the 1994 U.S. history exam by the National Assessment of Educational Progress: Question Type 1, asked of high school seniors: “The Monroe Doctrine was intended to: (A) promote United States trade with China; (B) help keep the peace in Europe; (C) discourage European involvement in the Americas; (D) protect United States business in Japan and Korea.” (Answer is C; 41 percent of seniors answered correctly). “What was one consequence of Nat Turner’s rebellion?: (A) Large number of slaves fled to the North; (B) Slave revolts broke out throughout the South; (C) Conditions for slaves on many Southern plantations improved; (D) Southern states passed laws designed to tightly control slaves.” (Answer is D; 34 percent correct). “Between 1960 and 1980, what invention most changed the way people in the United States worked?: (A) The typewriter; (B) The computer; (C) The superconductor; (D) The radio.” (Answer is B; 88 percent correct). Question Type 1, asked of fourth-graders: “Which of these was one of the thirteen colonies that fought the American Revolution against the British?: (A) Illinois; (B) California; (C) New York; (D) Texas.” (Answer is C; 32 percent correct.)