Publication Date

December 1, 1995

Students graduating from the nation's high schools are woefully underprepared for their role as citizens in the republic. They have neither an extensive knowledge of the nation's history, nor the ability to think and reason from what knowledge they do have. So finds the new study released by the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), NAEP 1994 U.S. History: A First Look. The study ls a preliminary assessment of testing done in 1994; a fuller analysis will appear as the NAEP 1994 United States History Report Card in January 1996.

Maris A. Vinovskis, a member of the NAEP reviewing panel and chair of the history department at the University of Michigan, called the results "deeply disturbing." He and other panel members renewed the call for reinvigoration of historical study in elementary and secondary schools.

In spring 1994 selected students in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades from across the country participated in testing conducted by NAEP. Unlike much standardized testing, which often measures only students' ability to recall factual data, the NAEP test assessed students' ability to analyze material from primary and secondary sources. Not surprisingly, the results found serious deficiencies in student skills at all levels.

NAEP was created by a congressional mandate in 1969 and is administered by the National Assessment Governing Board through the Department of Education. The 1994 test was redesigned in a joint effort by the Council of Chief State School Officers with the American Historical Association, the American Institutes for Research, the National Council for History Education, and the National Council for the Social Studies.

The American Historical Association helped design the new framework in order to replace the older method of testing, which essentially asked students a "laundry list" of multiple-choice questions. The framework promotes much recent historiography and calls for an analysis of thinking and reasoning skills, and the ability to treat history as an interconnected process. The test assesses three major dimensions of historical understanding. "Themes in U.S. History" tested students' knowledge of political, social, cultural and economic history. "Periods in U.S. History" divided U.S. history into eight period categories from "Three Worlds and Their Meeting in the Americas" to “Contemporary America.” "Ways of Knowing and Thinking about U.S. History," the most innovative part of the test, judged students' ability to analyze primary and secondary sources.

The analytical section of the exam asks students to analyze ahistorical document, such as a magazine cover, a famous work of art, a political cartoon, or a list of groceries available at a store. For example, students are shown a facsimile of a grocery advertisement to test their knowledge and ability to reason about economic history. (See image below.)

The test results divided students into four categories: advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic. Students at the advanced level are expected to “demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of events and sources of U.S. history. Recognizing that history is subject to interpretation, they should be able to evaluate historical claims critically in light of the evidence." Those in the basic category required only a "partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills," The most disturbing statistic revealed by the study is that 57 percent of high school seniors nationwide fell into the below basic category. In other words, 57 percent failed the test.

The test also found disparities between regions, between minority and white students, between males and females, and between public and private schoolchildren. In general, Asians and whites tended to outperform blacks and Hispanics. In the earlier grades, males and females tended to do about the same, but by the time of high school graduation males slightly outperformed females. Children enrolled in private schools did better across the board, as did those whose parents had a higher level of education, Nationally, students from the Northeast and central regions of the country tended to outperform students in the West, while students in the Southeast did the worst of all.

At the press conference called to announce the results, Maris Vinovskis called for a renewed commitment to voluntary national history standards to help states formulate curriculum goals. Citing the importance of history education in training responsible voters, he urged that National Endowment for the Humanities funding for teacher education programs be restored. He also called for more funding to be devoted to the research and development of good teaching methods. He hoped that a bipartisan group of educators, historians, and concerned citizens could be convened to suggest ways to improve the teaching history in our schools. Single copies of the NAEP report are available while, supplies last from the National Library of Education (800)424-1616.

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