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Let He Who Knows Who Won the Korean War Cast the First Stone

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This past Tuesday, 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.  But if the media focused Tuesday morning on a less-than-presidential debate in New Hampshire, or on the latest economic domino tilting ever further on a precarious edge, many of us also eagerly 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 owe 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 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 dead, but also resulted in the liberation of the twelve percent of the American population owned as human chattel in 1860.  Are we teaching Lincoln without the Civil War or emancipation?  Or are fourth graders merely accustomed to counting their pennies or spending five-dollar bills?

In general, however, 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 fourteen-year-olds a test on their driving skills.

That leaves the high school seniors.   No improvement since 2006, with only 45% of all participants attaining “basic knowledge.”  40% 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 Cold War propaganda I am willing to forgive the 38% 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.

But are they alone?  20% of the audience for the NAEP webcast could not come up with a correct answer to one of the exam’s multiple-choice questions.   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.