U.S. Department of Education Releases Results of Latest U.S. History Test

David Darlington, July 2002

SSRAt a joint press conference on May 9, 2002, the U.S. Department of Education released the results for the 2001 National Assessment Educational Progress (NAEP) U.S. history assessment. There was some good news in the NAEP assessment, also known as "The Nation's Report Card: U.S. History, 2001," as the average scale scores of both fourth- and eighth-graders showed improvement from the previous assessment in 1994. Fourth-graders' average scores rose from 205 to 209 (out of 500 possible points), while eighth-graders' scores rose from 259 to 262. This news was tempered by the score results of twelfth-graders' tests, which rose from 286 to 287, a change not deemed significant by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Furthermore, the NAEP results showed that many students still possess what the NCES termed "below basic" knowledge of historical material ("basic" being defined as "partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade"). Of the fourth-graders, 33 percent were determined as having below basic knowledge (down from 36 percent in the previous NAEP assessment in 1994). Of eighth-graders, 36 percent were deemed below basic (down from 39 percent), while the scores for twelfth-graders remained unchanged at 57 percent below basic. At the press conference, moderated by Gary W. Phillips, U.S. deputy commissioner of education statistics (who was directly responsible for the assessment), educators and education department officials tried to interpret both the good and the bad news revealed by the survey. Roderick Paige, U.S. secretary of education, John J. Patrick, professor of education at Indiana University, and Diane Ravitch, historian, professor of education at New York University, and member of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), were also present at the press conference.

Secretary Paige began the conference with a prepared statement expressing concern that many students possessed a below basic knowledge of American history. "This is unacceptable," Paige said. "History is a critical part of our nation's school curriculum. It is through history that we understand our past and contemplate our future.. [T]he questions that stumped so many students involve the most fundamental concepts of our democracy, our growth as a nation, and our role in the world." The secretary did "take joy" that some progress had been made, however, mentioning the increase in the average scores of fourth- and eighth-graders, as well as the noticeable narrowing of the "achievement gap" between white and minority students (see results below). Invoking President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and criticizing those who said the administration was not spending enough on education, Paige pointed out that education spending has risen from $23 billion in 1996 to $50 billion in the 2002 budget. He added that improving education requires both more money and reform, especially greater accountability in the education process. The nation must create, the secretary argued, "a system that insists on accountability and results, teacher quality, and reading programs that work. A system where taxpayers know what they're getting for their money-and parents know if their children are learning history, reading, math, and science."

Score Differences

John J. Patrick expressed concern at the numbers of students who had still not achieved "competency" in history, stating, "we are a very, very long way from success." He found it alarming that over half of twelfth-grade students were below basic level, and that the "proficient" level was achieved by only 18 percent, 17 percent, and 11 percent of fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-graders, respectively. Diane Ravitch added that in no other subject do more than half of high school seniors (57 percent) register below basic. Patrick did find some positive developments in the NAEP assessment, specifically regarding the increased use of nontextbook sources in the teaching and learning of U.S. history. The assessment showed that use of primary sources was related to higher student achievement among eighth-grade students, and twelfth-graders who read biographies performed better than students who did not. Patrick concluded, "it seems that there has been an increasing use of courses other than the textbook in the teaching and learning of U.S. history, which has led to improved achievement by students."

Patrick and Ravitch strongly recommended that prospective teachers should demonstrate their knowledge of history before they are licensed to teach the subject in schools. Ravitch stated that the subjects with the highest number of out-of-field teachers are history and physics. She found physics understandable, given stiff competition from the private sector, but could not produce a satisfactory explanation for why so many history teachers are out-of-field. Many states do not require history teachers to major or even minor in the subject. Patrick added that "command of the content by the teacher is a necessary if not sufficient requisite of effective instruction," and that state certification requirements have not been sufficient to bring qualified teachers to the classroom. Patrick reiterated his pleasure at the increasing use of primary sources in the classroom, and said that further use should be encouraged. He also supported increased curricular coverage and instructional time given to U.S. history in elementary and secondary schools. He further argued that teachers should "conjoin content and cognitive process," saying that students should learn both basic content knowledge of history as well as fundamental cognitive operations, and that "to elevate one over the other.is a pedagogical flaw that interferes with effective education." Finally, Patrick echoed the administration's call for improving the quality of "content standards and standards-based assessments" of student achievement, as well as establishing high expectations for student performance. Patrick argued that "the performances of teachers and students are likely to improve when warranted instructional objectives are stated clearly and used authoritative as criteria for accountability in the teaching and learning of core subjects," like history.

Parents' Education

In addition to reporting the scale score results of the NAEP, the NCES also sorted the results by gender, race/ethnicity, public versus private school, and parents' education level. All three commentators took note of the narrowing of the "achievement gap" between white and minority students.

African American fourth-graders showed a marked improvement, with an average scale score rising from 177 to 188, narrowing the score difference with white fourth-graders by seven points. Twelfth-grade Hispanic American students had similar gains, with scale scores rising from 267 to 274, narrowing the gap with white students also by seven points. When sorted by gender, the gap between boys' and girls' scores was slight, with fourth-grade girls and boys and eighth-grade boys showing improvement. Regarding the education level of the parents, NAEP reported that the higher the parental education level reported by twelfth-graders, the higher the average score attained. Students whose parents did not possess a high school diploma had an average scale score of 269, while students whose parents graduated college had an average scale score of 298.

Furthermore, the NAEP report showed that nonpublic school students had higher average scores than public school students regardless of the reported level of parental education. Accordingly, nonpublic students were far more likely to possess at least a Basic level of historical knowledge. For public school students, 65 percent, 62 percent, and 42 percent were at or above Basic level (fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-graders, respectively), while the results were 85 percent, 84 percent, and 59 percent for nonpublic students.

NAEP tests were administered to nationally representative samples of fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade students in order to assess students' knowledge of history. The sample size was 29,600 students, of which 7,000 were fourth-graders, 11,300 were eighth-graders, and 11,300 were twelfth-graders. The tests consisted of two-thirds multiple-choice questions and one-third "constructed-response" (short essay) questions. No single student got the whole test form, but rather students were given one hour out of a five-hour test. As a result, there were no individual test scores, and a perfect score was impossible. Instead, student performance scores were based on an average of large groups. Student performance was described in two ways: one, by average scores on the NAEP U.S. history scale; and two, in terms of the percentages of students who attained each of the U.S. history achievement levels: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. The content of the tests was determined by a "U.S. history framework" that was developed through a national consensus of education professionals and adopted by the NAGB. This framework divided U.S. history into eight historical periods and four central themes which informed the development of the test questions.


The four central themes were: 1. change and continuity in American democracy: ideas, institutions, practices and controversies; 2. the gathering and interactions of peoples, cultures, and ideas; 3. economic and technical changes and their relation to society, ideas, and the environment; and 4. the changing role of America in the world. The complete framework is available on the NAGB web site in PDF format at http://www.nagb.org/pubs/hframework2001.pdf.

One unusual result reported by the NAEP assessment was the impact that computers had on students' test scores. When quizzed about the frequency of computer use in social studies or history class, results showed that the more frequent computer users actually scored lower in the assessment. Fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade students who said that they used computers "every day" scored 167, 239, and 265, respectively, while students who used computers only "once every few weeks" scored 212, 268, and 291. The results indicated a negative relationship between more frequent general use of computers in a history class and students' performance on the U.S. history assessment. However, the tests then showed that when students were given specific tasks to perform on the computer, scores rose. Soliciting responses from eighth- and twelfth-graders, the assessment showed that students who spent time using a CD-ROM or the Internet for research projects "not at all" scored 253 and 274, respectively, but those who did so to a "large extent" scored 272 and 300. For students who used computers to write reports, the results were similar.

Although these results may seem very striking, the report stated that the relationship between computer use and average U.S. history scores cannot be interpreted causally, cautioning that "certain types of computer use may support student learning; however, the relationship may also be due to the background and other characteristics of students who are asked to use computers in these ways." Still, these results provide more fodder for the ongoing debate over how to integrate computers into the history classroom.

The next NAEP U.S. history test is not scheduled until 2010. NAGB is planning to revise the history framework prior to the 2010 examination.

The results and details of the 2001 NAEP U.S. history assessment are available on the web at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ushistory/results/.

Average Scores

For a discussion by Diane Ravitch of many of the solutions presented at the conference, such as less reliance on out-of-field teachers and increased usage of nontextbook materials in classrooms, see her article that appeared on the History News Network. That article can be found at http://hnn.us/articles/755.html

—David Darlington is assistant editor of Perspectives.