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Martin A. Davis, Jr.: What the New History Report Card Tells Us

[Martin Davis is Senior Writer and Editor for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. A former adjunct professor of medieval history at the University of South Carolina, he made the jump to journalism in 2000.]

The venue selected for the release of the 2006 NAEP results in U.S. history and civics was Boston's Old State House. Delicious, I thought.

As a site synonymous both with horror (the Boston Massacre occurred just outside it in 1770) and with celebration (the Declaration of Independence was read from its balcony in 1776), I couldn't help but wonder which mood would carry the day.

Mark Schneider, the commissioner of education statistics, didn't read the results from the balcony, to be sure, but his enthusiasm was palpable. While the civics results were a mixed bag, the history results were pleasantly surprising, albeit not where anyone would want them to be.

Overall, in U.S. history, more fourth- and eighth-graders are scoring at the basic level or above than in 1994 and 2001, and--for the first time in any subject since 1998--more twelfth-graders are hitting the mark, too.

Better, the lowest performers made the greatest improvements. So, for example, in the fourth grade, while those scoring at the 50th percentile and above held steady from 2001, those scoring at the 10th and 25th percentile levels saw their scores increase significantly. The same held true in eighth grade.

In twelfth grade, all but the highest performers (those scoring in the 90th percentile) increased their scores significantly.

But the numbers are not all rosy. Thirty-five percent of eighth-graders are below basic in history; a whopping 53 percent of twelfth-graders are. The number of students achieving at that low level in history is significantly higher than the number below basic in math and reading, too. Nonetheless, scores are up, which is good news. There are two questions to be answered. First, what accounts for the jumps in performance? Second, where do we go from here?

Why the increases? We'll never know for sure, but of course it's possible that the accountability measures for reading that are embedded in NCLB and related state systems are partly responsible. That's the Administration's line, anyway.

"While critics may argue that NCLB leads educators to narrow their curriculum focus," said Secretary Spellings in a press release yesterday morning, "the fact is, when students know how to read and comprehend, they apply these skills to other subjects like history and civics."

Another explanation for the increases, particularly for twelfth-graders, may lie in the recently released high school transcript study, which shows significantly more courses being taken in social studies. And we shouldn't forget to examine other forces, such as the History Channel, which has a strong contingency of young watchers (and offers a classroom-viewing component) and a growing place in K-12 classrooms.

Okay, things are looking up, but where do we go from here? The bottom line is that we're far from where we want to be. For all the celebration over the improvements, it's important to remember that the gains are mostly at the basic level. The proficient and advanced scores have hardly moved; they're flat across the board since 2001 (see here, here, and here). This is a very worrisome trend. Basic performance on NAEP isn't enough (see here). Proficient and advanced should be the goals.

This is not Pollyanna talking. According to Wednesday's results, the following facts are expected of students performing at the "proficient" level, but not necessarily of those at the "basic" level.

Grade 4: "Students can interpret Lincoln's position on slavery."
Grade 8: "Place colonial events on [a] time line."
Grade 12: "Identify segregation in [a] photo and explain its impact on African Americans."

These are hardly side-show matters in American history, and few would argue that all students shouldn't know this sort of thing. Maybe Spellings is half right: perhaps improvements in reading prowess do explain the gains in history and civics. But that doesn't mean that NCLB isn't also leading schools to narrow the curriculum and accountability systems (see here); imagine how much more progress we might make if schools were held to account for student achievement in history and civics, too.

So there's plenty left to do. Perhaps that's why Schneider and his colleagues selected the Old State House to release the report. Not to celebrate, as Bostonians did 231 years ago, but to mark a point in time: the point at which we began to see that it is possible to launch a revolution, and to begin to educate all children well.

Read entire article at Education Gadfly (Thomas B. Fordham Foundation)