From the From the Executive Director column of the September 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

Casting the First Stone [or, Taking Pot Shots at the History NAEP]

James Grossman, September 2011

On June 14, 2011, the National Center for Education Statistics released the results of its 2010 U.S. history tests for grades four, eight, and twelve. This is one of those events that generates tremendous buzz in one corner of the world, but creates barely a ripple elsewhere—not even in academia. But as the media focused that Tuesday morning on a less-than-presidential debate in New Hampshire, or on the latest economic domino tilting ever further on a precarious edge, we at the AHA awaited the results of the “History NAEP”—or “National Assessment of Educational Progress” in U.S. history.

The results were not encouraging. Sparing you the numbers, I echo those who have observed that the only improvements came in a few areas where increased scores probably owed more to progress in reading ability than history education. I don't dismiss this accomplishment by any means; it appears that eighth-grade minority students taking the U.S. history NAEP are reading better and using their skills more effectively in testing situations (at least this testing situation), and are narrowing the gap vis-à-vis white students. This is a good thing. But it would be better still if our eighth graders were also learning some history.

Fourth graders showed no improvement at all. That many can identify Lincoln's image without the foggiest notion of why he is important is troubling to those of us inclined to reflect upon the significance of a war that left more than 600,000 Americans dead while liberating another 12 percent of the American population previously owned as human chattel. Are we teaching Lincoln without reference to the Civil War or emancipation? Or, are fourth graders merely accustomed to counting their pennies or spending five-dollar bills?

But I am disinclined to join the handwringing over the fourth grade results. It is entirely possible that the fourth grade U.S. history NAEP is a nearly useless measurement since in many states children don't study much U.S. history until fifth grade. Next year let's give 14-year-olds a test on their driving skills.

That leaves the high school seniors. No improvement since 2006, with only 45 percent of all participants attaining "basic knowledge.”And 40 percent thought that North Korea's closest ally during the Korean War was Japan or Vietnam, even with China and the Soviet Union right there among the multiple-choice answers (considering the enduring legacies of Cold War propaganda I am willing to forgive the 38 percent who chose the Soviet Union).The consensus among those familiar with the test and the broader assessment landscape is that our high school graduates don't know much about history. And this summer we learned that they don't know much about geography either, since those NAEP results have generated similar lamentations.

But are they alone? Twenty percent of the audience for the NAEP history webcast could not come up with a correct answer to one of the exam's multiple-choice questions. I could take pot shots at candidates for national office whose narratives of the American past vary from the bizarre to the improbable to simply contradicting basic facts. I might offer examples from historic site tours and monuments that leave me scratching my head, trying to figure out where the details might have originated, since they bear little relationship to the rather wide range of consensus among professional historians. Or point to textbooks that draw their information from web sites whose historical insights are at best outdated, at worst invented. Why should we expect our youth to do any better?

I offer the following modest suggestion: anyone who voices criticism of our students or our teachers based on this test ought to take the test themselves.

James Grossman is the executive director of the American Historical Association. This article has been adapted from the essay published on June 19, 2011, by History News Network at http://hnn.us/articles/140057.html. HNN's courtesy in granting permission to use the article is gratefully acknowledged.