Should We Be Alarmed by the Results of the Latest U.S. History Test? (Yes)

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Ms. Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board.

On May 9, 2002, the U.S. Department of Education released the results for the 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress assessment of U.S. history. It was a good news-bad news report, with more of the latter than the former. The good news was that children in the fourth and eighth grades had improved their performance when compared to a similar assessment given in 1994. The bad news was that the high school seniors had not improved at all, and that their performance was pretty awful.

We would like to believe that students grow steadily in their knowledge and skills as they progress through school. This, however, seems not to be the case with U.S. history. The younger students perform considerably better than high school seniors. As the demand for knowledge and skill increases, as test questions become more complex, the proportion of low-performing students also increases.

The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) has two different ways of reporting on student performance: one is scale scores, measured on a scale from 0 to 500, the other is achievement levels (with varying percentages of students scoring at or above basic, proficient, and advanced). Scale scores are supposed to show what students know and can do; achievement levels establish what students should know and should be able to do at their grade level. Both ways of reporting show the same results.

First the good news: In the fourth grade, the improvement in student performance was mainly a significant gain among the lowest performing students, those at the 10th and 25th percentile; in eighth grade, the small but significant gains were more evenly spread from bottom to top. Also, there were significant improvements for white and black students in the fourth grade.

And the bad news: The scale scores of students in the twelfth grade were unchanged from 1994 to 2001. When judged by achievement levels (that is, what students should know and be able to do), 57 percent of high school seniors scored"below basic." In no other subject assessed by NAEP are so many students below basic. Consider that in science, 47 percent are below basic, which itself is a disturbing figure for the age we live in; in mathematics, the proportion below basic is 35 percent. In reading, it is 23 percent.

In fourth grade, 33 percent of students taking the history test were below basic in 2001, and in eighth grade, 36 percent were below basic.

There is a great deal that history teachers at every level can learn by examining the NAEP data, not only the test scores, but the background information provided by teachers and students. All of it is correlational, not causal, but it is interesting nonetheless. Some analysts surmised that seniors did poorly on the post-1945 material because their teachers had not gotten to the modern era; but when you see the questions, you will see that the seniors didn't do well on questions from the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. I recommend a visit to the NAEP website at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ITMRLS/search.asp?picksubj=History. Draw your own conclusions about the framework and the test questions, many of which are posted on the website.

As a member of NAGB, I participated in the press conference with Secretary of Education Rod Paige to release the results, and I was asked by members of the press to comment. Of course, like everyone else, I could only speculate on why there had been gains in the lower grades and why seniors performed so poorly, but herewith some speculations.

Out-of-field teachers: We know from studies done by Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania for the U.S. Department of Education that there are an extraordinary proportion of people teaching history who have neither a major nor a minor in history. In fact, history and physics are the two fields in which a majority of teachers are"out-of-field." We know that industry offers stiff competition for people who hold a degree in physics, but it is not so evident why there is so much out-of-field teaching in history. The main reason, I believe, is that states don't require future history teachers to major or minor in history. This is a problem that states could fix if they wanted to. Those with a major or minor in one of the social sciences, such as psychology, may not be well prepared to teach about the Civil War, the progressive movement, or the New Frontier. Many states and districts continue to believe that anyone can teach history, regardless of their educational preparation. It seems to me that if we hope to improve student knowledge of history, we should insist that future teachers of U.S. history be expected to demonstrate their knowledge of the subject before they teach it, by taking and passing a subject-matter test no less rigorous than the one that the students must take to graduate from high school.

Textbooks: The dullness of history textbooks is legendary. I am involved right now in a study of history textbooks, and I must say that I have trouble reading them because of their jumbled, jangly quality. I also have trouble lifting them because they are so heavy and overstuffed with trivia and pedagogical aids. With one or maybe two exceptions, most textbooks put more emphasis on visual glitz than on the quality of their text. By the time that these books emerge from the political process that is called state adoption, they lack voice and narrative power. They lack the very qualities that make historical writing exciting. Our history textbooks are distracting, and I don't know how students learn anything from them.

Standards: Although we have lived through an era in which states have adopted standards, many states have totally inadequate history standards. I have seen state standards for social studies that barely mention history. States that hope to improve performance in U.S. history must make their curricular objectives clear and provide adequate time and instructional resources for teachers.

Resources: People who care about history education have been saying for at least 100 years that students should be using primary source documents and should be encouraged to read them closely, analyze their meaning, and discuss them. In addition, I would suggest that students should be reading biographies and histories that are not textbooks.

When I talked to members of the press about the poor showing of our seniors on this test, they often asked why it matters. In fact, Robert J. Samuelson wrote in the Washington Post that it really doesn't matter at all whether we know much history (he prefaced his article with the famous quote from Henry Ford,"History is bunk"). He called his column"What We Don't Know Won't Hurt Us." (May 15, 2002). Samuelson cited John Hersey's interview with an American soldier at Guadalcanal; asked if he knew why he was fighting, the solider paused and said that he sure would like to have a piece of blueberry pie. Samuelson decided that this soldier knew all he needed to know, that a piece of blueberry pie sums up all that America stands for.

I think he is wrong; presumably the Japanese soldiers he was fighting also longed for the comforts of home, as did German soldiers, and soldiers of every other nationality. Is that good enough? Shouldn't we know more about our nation and our democracy? Two recent articles are worth reading: Peter McCormick,"History: Ignore Its Lessons at Your Peril" (College Board Review, Spring 2002), and Victor Davis Hansen,"The Abuse of History." McCormick argues that history is important not only to stimulate curiosity about the world but to protect oneself from falsehoods. Hansen shows in graphic detail why Americans need to know history in order to refute the lies and absurd historical analogies that have filled the airwaves since September 11.

There is unfortunately a sizable contingent willing to believe that ignorance is bliss. I, who live less than a mile from what used to be called the World Trade Center but is now known as Ground Zero, now fully understand the saying that"no news is good news." But to welcome"no news" is by no means the same as approving of historical ignorance. I believe that each of us has the obligation if not the right to be fully informed of American and world history and to recognize that our schools can set the foundation but that the learning of history is a lifelong project.

One lesson that I draw from the NAEP scores is that historians need to do a far better job promoting the study of history in the schools and explaining the importance of historical knowledge to the public in general and the press in particular. Imagine reading a paper or a news magazine in which every reference to the past must be explained or in which no such references appear because so few people will understand them. That way lies a dumbing-down that is dangerous to our democracy.


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Jerry Tiarsmith - 10/18/2003

As an adjunct professor of history reesponsible for instructing basic survey courses to incoming freshman, I am appalled at the general lack of familiarity with basic US history subject matter. In a recent examination of state history programs, Alabama was one of seven states awarded an "A" rating and yet students are unable to demonstrate any mastery of the subject matter at teh university level. In addition, many students demonstrate an inability to adequately communicate their ideas in written form due to a lack of critical vocabulary and writing skills. How long must this situation continue and what will be the ultimate result if allowed to continue unchecked?

Jack Bovee - 11/11/2002

In citing the reasons why high school students are performing so poorly in the vital area of historical understanding, Dr. Ravitch does correctly point out the great number of teachers who are not "certified" in History. The great majority of these, however, have taken more courses in History than any other subject. Her example of the Psychology teacher now having to make sense of historical information is "lame" to say the least. What DOES impact the poor understanding of History at the high school level is the overwhelming number of athletic coaches who are teaching the subject. Although many of these are fine teachers of history, many others simply "go through the motions". It does not bode well for students when literally everyone in the social studies department has the first name of "coach". As an former high school teacher, principal, and district administrator of 30 years experience, I can say the situation is growing WORSE, not better. There are tons of reports on how effective or ineffective are the use of cooperative grouping strategies, heterogeneous classes, and inclusion techniques. Where is the research on the impact of having everyone a coach? When, quite literally, individuals can not be found to volunteer to teach AP History classes because they are highly accountable or too much work, how can we expect students in regular classes to excell? I wish Dr. Ravitch would apply her investigative research skills to THIS issue.

There is a second reason why our high school teachers are becoming more and more the "coaching" department.

As a curriculum area, the history teaching profession is TOTALLY unaccountable. We are the only area not given state by state comparisons in N.A.E.P., nor do a majority of states assess it to the extent of even science. Dr. Ravitch has sat on the Governing Board of N.A.E.P. for many years and has, I suspect, fought against the inclusion of the History, Geography, and Civics assessments into one single assessment that would provide state by state comparisons because she fears it would be called "social studies". Now that economics is to soon be added to the N.A.E.P. schedule, this is an unrealistic position for anyone in our profession to take. There is simply no reason for any Governor, Chief State Educational Officer, legislature or school district to care one way or the other how students do in History or any other area cited above because there is no accountability. After all, the small number of students surveyed by N.A.E.P. do not reflect "their" students. The other curriculum areas do not have separate tests for "Algebra" or "Biology" or "Chemistry". Nor should we. The power of N.A.E.P. rests in its state by state comparisons with a national average. Until Dr. Ravitch changes her position on national testing or N.A.E.P. begins to provide equity to our area of the profession as it does for Math, Reading, Writing, or now Science - nothing will change! We'll continue to be the coaching profession and training ground for the NCAA, not the history profession!

Karen Needles - 9/23/2002

I find it difficult to understand how we can effectively teach history when required to teach 400 years of history in one year. Some states have created a Social Studies curriculum requiring history all 12 years. But I talk with so many teachers that are still required to teach in the old fashioned mode.
When it comes down to requirements for teaching history, you will find that many still require you to be a male, who coaches. I have had more personnel administrators say "Anyone can teach history!"
Until someone takes a long look at how history should be taught, how literature, art, music, science, and math should be integrated into the Social Studies framework, until students can be introduced to history as "a story", giving them time to identify the storyline, the characters and the parts they play, the plot, the cause and effect, the fact that history is more than one point of view, and that history truly does repeat itself, you will continue to see the test results stay at a low.

John Gorentz - 6/1/2002

I agree with the idea that students should be reading biographies and histories that are not textbooks, but I question whether it's a good idea for students at the high school level to be learning from primary source documents. I've seen it being done. It doesn't seem a good use of time. There is so much to learn and life is too short. I wonder if excessive use of primary materials isn't partly responsible for the low scores we're seeing.

It's a good idea for students to be exposed to primary source documents so they get some idea how the histories get made. But this could be done in one carefully chosen unit of a course. A little bit could be made to go a long way.

rob adams - 5/30/2002

The adequate and critical teaching of history is inimical to maintaining a compliant populace. I suggest that, since World War II, the consolidating political elite took it as a direct challenge to disprove Lincoln's favorite dictum about fooling all the people all the time. I believe they and the oligarchical hegemonists both have a stake in creating a majority undereducated, uncritical class incapable of discerning public lies from time-tested truth. Of course an ultimately insupportable web of propaganda and lies as politically correct truth was what brought another society to its knees and final collapse. It was called the Soviet Union.
Rob Adams

Mark Safranski - 5/27/2002

From personal and professsional experience I can only state that Dr. Ravitch, if anything, understates the case. If I were to speculate on the improvement in the elementary grades NAEP history scores I would attribute the increase predominantly to improved teaching of reading - less whole language fanaticism these days than ten years ago. The younger students may be scoring better because more of them are reading at grade level and are decoding the test questions properly - not because their teachers are any better prepared or devote much curriculum time to history instruction.

Never have so many learned so little with so few noticing that anything was amiss.