National History Test Results Aren't Too Hot, But Could You Pass the Exams?

Posted by Liz Dwyer

Abraham Lincoln

When it comes to history, are you smarter than a fourth grader? The just-released results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress U.S. History 2010 Report Card show that of 30,000 students tested in 2010, only 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders, and 12 percent of seniors are proficient in American history. Federal officials celebrated a slight increase in scores for eighth graders since 2006, and scores for all grade levels are higher than they were in 1994, but only 2 percent of 12th graders correctly answered a question about Brown v. Board of Education, and only 9 percent of fourth graders could identify a photograph of Abraham Lincoln and give two reasons why he's important.

Why the dismal proficiency numbers? Linda K. Salvucci, a history professor at Trinity University and the chairwoman-elect of the National Council for History Education, told the New York Times that part of the problem is that teacher education programs make the mistake of certifying teachers with a general social studies credential instead of one in history. "They think they’ll be more versatile, that they can teach civics, government, whatever," she said. “But they’re not prepared to teach history."

Indeed, according to a recently released government report (PDF) on the education and certification of public high school teachers, only 63.8 percent of history teachers surveyed actually majored in history, and only 30.8 percent have a teaching credential in the subject. It's also hard to get students interested when teachers make history about memorizing facts when, as Salvucci says, it's actually "a way of thinking and organizing the world."

The other problem is that, thanks to No Child Left Behind's exclusive focus on reading and math results, too many elementary school students aren't being taught history at all because it's not measured on standardized tests. I'm pretty sure my own fourth grader would fail his grade level's exam.

So how tough are the questions? Here's one from the eighth grade test:

history
Which of the following best explains the trend shown in the graph above?

1. Farmers needed to grow less food.
2. The birth rate in the United States declined.
3. Farms became increasingly mechanized.
4. Farmers stopped planting because their soil was overused.

To get this question correct, students would either have to be skilled at deductive reasoning or have a teacher that actually taught about the industrial farming complex. Given that American students have long lacked proficiency in history, I'm not convinced most adults can score well on these questions—we did just have a national debate about the details of Paul Revere's ride. You can test yourself on questions from each of the three grade levels covered in the NAEP here.

photo via Wikimedia Commons