What Do Our Students Know?

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Mr. Winkler is Distinguished Professor of History at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. He is a member of the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) U.S. History Standing Committee.

What do our students know? As educators, we're interested in this question, and are always eager for whatever answers we can find. As historians, we're particularly concerned with what people know about the past. The report just released by the National Center for Education Statistics gives us some sense of student accomplishment. Some of the results are encouraging; others are not.

I've been working as a consultant for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), better known as the Nation's Report Card, for the much of the past decade. Back in 1990, one of the National Education Goals adopted by President George H.W. Bush singled out history as one of the most important subjects for national life. And our job was to work with the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which in turn was working with NAEP, to try to develop a history test for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, and then figure out how to score it, to indicate just what students know about the past.

As part of that effort, we wrote and rewrote questions. There were some multiple choice questions, but many more free response items that required either a few sentences or a full paragraph. After an early version of the exam was pretested at sites around the country, the examinations were collected in Iowa, and our team was summoned again - in the dead of winter - to read the raw answers, create standards for grading the essays and to rewrite questions that could be phrased more clearly.

In early 1994, the completed exam was given to students around the country. Once again, we were gathered together to examine the questions that students in the 25th, 50th, and 90th percentiles got right. At that time, I worked primarily with the 12th grade exams, and was sorry to find out that at the 25th percentile, students had relatively little factual recall. What they did know was largely in the colonial period and the recent past, with the 19th century like vacant ground. Students could read and interpret simple documents, or generalize from simple cartoons, but had trouble doing much more.

At the 50th percentile, as you would expect, students knew more and showed greater analytical ability. And at the 90th percentile, students had a much better factual and analytical base, could write reasonably articulate comparisons of documents, and could relate the text of these items to the historical periods where they belonged.

One reason for encouragement was the fact that we were working with a framework that was consonant with the then new History Standards, and most of the students did all right. The better ones understood political as well as social developments. The less well-prepared students needed work in both areas.

Now we finally have the results for the 2001 test.

At the 4th and 8th grade levels, scores were higher than they were in 1994. The performance of 12th graders was relatively stable. Improvement was visible among lower-performing students at the 4th grade level, and among both lower-and higher-performing students at the 8th grade level.

The bad news is that only 18 percent of 4th graders, 17 percent of 8th graders, and 11 percent of 12th graders are performing at the Proficient level, which is really where they should be.

The good news is that in the 4th grade, the percentage of students performing above a Basic level was higher in 2001 than in 1994. Likewise, the percentage of students performing in the 8th grade at or above Basic, Proficient, and Advanced levels also rose. For 12th graders, the percentage remained pretty much the same.

What do all these figures mean?

First, we really need to do whatever we can to increase the level of historical knowledge and to develop the ability to interpret historical facts. It's discouraging to think that on a 500-point scale, the average scores are well below the 300-point mark. And yet, the modest progress should provide a small measure of satisfaction as we press on.

Education is in the news these days. The President has made a commitment to educational progress, and that is a good thing. I'm not a fan of tying funding to simplistic tests, but I do see a real value in the NAEP effort to alert us to just what our students know. This test, unlike some, is nuanced and sophisticated, and provides us with an important evaluative tool. It's made up by real historians and history teachers, and assessed by people who have a good sense of what we want students to know. Now we need to take the next steps in our own classrooms to ensure that the outcomes are even better next time.

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More Comments:

jordan smith - 7/16/2010

new jordans keep you motivated

Mike A McNamara - 6/13/2008

I agree that students seem to be deficient in memorizing important facts in our history. I feel like these should be benchmarks for what we are trying to teach them. I also appreciate that these students were given many more free responses in your test. I tell my students that while the facts are important if they can't link and explain their importance in realation to each other then the facts do very little for them. It is also good to see that questions were rephrased for clarity. It is disheartening to know that the students do know the material, but get hung up on the verbage.

Jeff Schneider - 5/22/2002

The data are not as meaningless as they seem. What is passing in your class? The 4th and 8th graders got 60- 67% of the answers correct. What's so bad about that?

It will doubtless be better to have kids learn more political history and to teach history and not social studies, but data that says that kids who get 65 on a test are failing -- are misinterpreted. Do we really believe that all kids can be above average? That is what the so-called "failing"reading scores were based on.

Michael Ducey - 5/15/2002

One thing we don't know about these exams is whether students have any incentive to perform well on them. Are these exams part of their grades? If not there might not be much incentive to take them seriously. Since this might vary from one school district to another (and even within districts), it's hard to generalize what this data means.

How are the tests administered? The questions and grading may be standardized but the context of the exam may be different. So can someone illuminate me on this?

Another issue here may be that what you are testing is whether teachers have adopted the National History Standards in their classrooms. Since the exams are organized around the standards, teachers who have adopted them would presumably produce students who test better on the exam. So what this may be measuring is how quickly teachers abandon their old lesson plans for new ones. This isn't necessarily a bad thing to test (after all the standards are very good) but it is not exactly the same as proficiency in history.

Mark Safranski - 5/14/2002

Should read " 300-400 LEVEL content courses " Sorry !

Mark Safranski - 5/14/2002

Much thanks to Dr. Winkler and everyone else pushing for a valid and reliable test of historical knowledge for elementary and secondary students. The current situation in terms of teaching history to school children is a scandal - or would be if the adults working in the system had enough education in the social sciences to be aware of the deficiencies. ( The hard sciences are in almost but not quite as bad a shape ) We have in fact, reached the point where the level of ignorance has become self-referential. The critical impact of the general deficit of historical knowledge is mostly unrecognized because it has in the last thirty years, become widespread.

Some possible solutions, in addition to testing:

1)Prevent public universities from using their colleges of education as cash cows to mass produce minimally qualified teachers. Establish minimum GPA requirements at least as high as the university's business school.

2) Abolish " Education " as an undergraduate major. Reserve that for graduate school. Undergraduates who intend to teach elementary students need a degree in something real - like math or history - and the support of a broad humanities program requiring 300 -400 content area courses.

3)States need to sanction school districts with more than 10 % of their faculty teaching a full load of courses for which they are not qualified. Of course this will drive up salaries but that will also attract better talent - two problems killed with a single stone.

4) Abolish " Social Studies " - a mushy term designed to conceal from parents and taxpayers that the varsity basketball coach is teaching your kid American history. Call it History again, or Political Science or Economics. Let's stop cheating the kids academically in order to pump up the A.D.'s bureaucratic agenda.

That would be a start at least.