Eighth grade students in the U.S. “don’t know much about history.” They “don’t know much about geography,” either. When Sam Cooke sang those memorable words in 1960, he wasn’t looking at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test results released last spring. But in 2015, his words are a grim reality. By the way, our eighth graders also don’t know much about civics, in case you were wondering.
Here’s what I don’t get: There was no national furor when the test results were released. The story was covered in some national media publications and in some education-related publications in print and online. Where was the outraged public reaction I would have expected or, rather, hoped for? Where were you, parents?
Here is some background. NAEP (pronounced nape) tests a nationwide sample of U.S. students to find out what they have learned in various school subjects. Some school subjects have been tested since 1969, some subjects were added later, and more subjects are still being added. Some exams are given more often than others—every two years, for example, instead of every four years. Exams have traditionally been given in grades 4, 8, and 12. Known as “the Nation’s Report Card,” the NAEP exams are administered, according to federal law, by the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education. Originally a project of the highly respected Education Commission of the States, the NAEP exams have always had a good reputation.
NAEP results are reported by these achievement levels (the quotations are from NAEP’s own glossary):
- Advanced—the highest level, indicating “superior performance” in the subject at that grade level
- Proficient—the middle level, indicating “solid academic performance” and “competency over challenging subject matter” in the subject at that grade level
- Basic—the lowest level, indicating “partial mastery” of the knowledge and skills in the subject at that grade level
- Below Basic—really a lack-of-achievement level, indicating scores so low that students could not even get onto the first rung of NAEP’s three-rung achievement ladder
In 2014, NAEP tested about 29,000 eighth grade students in a representative sample of public and private schools nationwide. Each student took only one of the social studies exams: U.S. history, geography (U.S. and world geography), or civics. Here are the results, shown as the percent of students scoring at each level:
- Advanced—1 %
- Proficient—17 %
- Basic—53 %
- Below Basic—29 %
- Advanced—3 %
- Proficient—24 %
- Basic—48 %
- Below Basic—25 %
- Advanced—2 %
- Proficient—22 %
- Basic—51 %
- Below Basic—26 %
You can add up and report these results any way you want to, trying to put a positive spin on them, but the bottom line is this: About 50 percent of eighth graders have only partial mastery of social studies subject matter, and about 25 percent of eighth graders don’t even have that. Just a tiny fraction of eighth graders really knocked the ball out of the park.
You can look at these results broken down by students’ racial/ethnic background, and you can look at these results compared to the results from tests given in earlier years. But there is really not much good news there, either. The overall results are so poor, that breaking them down to look for some small piece of good news misses the point.
Our first inclination when test results are poor is often to blame the test. I don’t believe you should do that here. I am inclined to believe that the test results are one reasonable portrait of what our kids know—or, in this case, don’t know.
Some people have said that U.S. history and geography and civics NAEP scores are not what they should be because of the recent focus on the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language arts and because of the recent enthusiastic support for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) initiatives from a host of experts, teachers, professors, business leaders, and politicians. Of course, the NAEP scores on these exams weren’t any better in 2010, the last time the three exams were given. Oh, and the geography scores haven’t improved at all since that exam was first given in 1994.
So, is social studies the least valued of the core academic subjects? Should it be? Have you had this discussion in your local schools, parents? Has your school board had this discussion with your local administrators? If you all have decided that U.S. history and geography and civics are not that important for students to learn, then you would think about these NAEP scores quite differently. Maybe you all made that decision, and I just missed it.
With the beginning of a new school year, it is a particularly good time to have these discussions about what matters—because nothing matters more than what your kids are learning in their classrooms:
- All parents: Ask your school board to talk about the NAEP results in U.S. history, geography, and civics and to discuss what they should mean for your school district. (This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to study the results before that meeting and to get the input of district administrators and teachers before and/or during the meeting.)
- Elementary school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers what they are doing to give students the foundation knowledge and skills they need to succeed in middle school social studies classes.
- Middle school parents: Ask your principal and social studies teachers what they think about the NAEP results and whether social studies teaching and learning in your school need to improve.
- High school parents: Ask your principal and social studies teachers what they are doing to help students learn the knowledge and skills they are already missing and what they will do to try to hit the standards being tested by the twelfth grade exams—that is, if you think they matter.