Why American Students Have A Poor Understanding of History

Aug 23, 2011

Last month results from the history portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released. The exam revealed that fewer than a quarter of students in the U.S. are proficient in history. Educators worry that most American young people are unprepared for the responsibilities of civic life.

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By Douglas Fehlen

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Few Students Proficient in History

The recently passed Fourth of July holiday was an occasion for Americans to demonstrate their patriotism. But many young people in the U.S. had no real idea of the significance of the holiday. At least that is what is suggested by findings from the history portion of the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP). Released last month, exam results reveal that only about one in three fourth-grade students understand the significance of the Declaration of Independence.

This is only one of many troubling findings from the latest testing of American students' knowledge of history. NAEP exams were administered to 31,000 students at the fourth-, eighth- and twelfth-grade levels. In the test, only 12% of high school students showed proficiency in history. Results were not much better for younger students - 20% of U.S. fourth graders and 17% of eighth graders who took the exam were proficient.

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National Failure in History Education

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, referred to as the 'Nation's Report Card,' refers to a series of exams intended to determine how well American schools are teaching students. The history portion of the exam is administered every four years. Multiple-choice questions explore four different themes in history, including: change and continuity in American democracy; the nation's peoples and cultures; technological and economic changes in society; and America's role in the world.

That students performed so badly on the history portion of the NAEP has many alarmed, with some suggesting the poor results are a reflection of diminished curriculum time for history. No Child Left Behind (NCLB), federal education legislation enacted in 2001, has directed greater focus on testing in reading and math. As a result, some observers suggest, there has been less importance placed on history. Sue Blanchette, president-elect of the National Council for Social Studies, estimates that time spent on social studies instruction has shrunk by up to 40% in the wake of NCLB.

Reforming Education

Blanchette believes that history must be made a greater focus so that students can be knowledgeable citizens. She suggests that the history portion of the NAEP should be administered every two years, just as math and reading tests are. Blanchette believes that this would lead to greater class time being devoted to history, explaining, 'What gets measured, gets taught.'

Other advocates have suggested that even greater measures need be taken to help ensure that the nation's students learn lessons from history and are prepared to be responsible global citizens. Some educators have called for an infusion of federal monies to create an education initiative akin to that which has made the STEM subjects a national focus. Without a large-scale effort, they suggest, American students will be doomed to repeat mistakes from history.

History instruction is only one area in which education advocates have called for change. Learn about school reform efforts underway around the country.

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