With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

What Do Our Students Know?

What do our students know? As educators, we're interested in this question, and are always eager for whatever answers we can find. As historians, we're particularly concerned with what people know about the past. The report just released by the National Center for Education Statistics gives us some sense of student accomplishment. Some of the results are encouraging; others are not.

I've been working as a consultant for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), better known as the Nation's Report Card, for the much of the past decade. Back in 1990, one of the National Education Goals adopted by President George H.W. Bush singled out history as one of the most important subjects for national life. And our job was to work with the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which in turn was working with NAEP, to try to develop a history test for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, and then figure out how to score it, to indicate just what students know about the past.

As part of that effort, we wrote and rewrote questions. There were some multiple choice questions, but many more free response items that required either a few sentences or a full paragraph. After an early version of the exam was pretested at sites around the country, the examinations were collected in Iowa, and our team was summoned again - in the dead of winter - to read the raw answers, create standards for grading the essays and to rewrite questions that could be phrased more clearly.

In early 1994, the completed exam was given to students around the country. Once again, we were gathered together to examine the questions that students in the 25th, 50th, and 90th percentiles got right. At that time, I worked primarily with the 12th grade exams, and was sorry to find out that at the 25th percentile, students had relatively little factual recall. What they did know was largely in the colonial period and the recent past, with the 19th century like vacant ground. Students could read and interpret simple documents, or generalize from simple cartoons, but had trouble doing much more.

At the 50th percentile, as you would expect, students knew more and showed greater analytical ability. And at the 90th percentile, students had a much better factual and analytical base, could write reasonably articulate comparisons of documents, and could relate the text of these items to the historical periods where they belonged.

One reason for encouragement was the fact that we were working with a framework that was consonant with the then new History Standards, and most of the students did all right. The better ones understood political as well as social developments. The less well-prepared students needed work in both areas.

Now we finally have the results for the 2001 test.

At the 4th and 8th grade levels, scores were higher than they were in 1994. The performance of 12th graders was relatively stable. Improvement was visible among lower-performing students at the 4th grade level, and among both lower-and higher-performing students at the 8th grade level.

The bad news is that only 18 percent of 4th graders, 17 percent of 8th graders, and 11 percent of 12th graders are performing at the Proficient level, which is really where they should be.

The good news is that in the 4th grade, the percentage of students performing above a Basic level was higher in 2001 than in 1994. Likewise, the percentage of students performing in the 8th grade at or above Basic, Proficient, and Advanced levels also rose. For 12th graders, the percentage remained pretty much the same.

What do all these figures mean?

First, we really need to do whatever we can to increase the level of historical knowledge and to develop the ability to interpret historical facts. It's discouraging to think that on a 500-point scale, the average scores are well below the 300-point mark. And yet, the modest progress should provide a small measure of satisfaction as we press on.

Education is in the news these days. The President has made a commitment to educational progress, and that is a good thing. I'm not a fan of tying funding to simplistic tests, but I do see a real value in the NAEP effort to alert us to just what our students know. This test, unlike some, is nuanced and sophisticated, and provides us with an important evaluative tool. It's made up by real historians and history teachers, and assessed by people who have a good sense of what we want students to know. Now we need to take the next steps in our own classrooms to ensure that the outcomes are even better next time.