This is just sad. The vast majority of American 12th-graders — more than three-fourths — didn’t know China was North Korea’s ally during the Korean War, and only 35 percent of fourth-graders knew the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, according to national history test scores released Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that U.S. schoolchildren have made little progress since 2006 in their understanding of key historical themes, including the basic principles of democracy and America’s role in the world.
Only 20% of U.S. fourth-graders and 17% of eighth-graders who took the 2010 history exam were “proficient” or “advanced,” unchanged since the test was last administered in 2006. Proficient means students have a solid understanding of the material.
The news was even more dire in high school, where 12% of 12th-graders were proficient, unchanged since 2006. More than half of all seniors posted scores at the lowest achievement level, “below basic.” While the nation’s fourth- and eighth-graders have seen a slight uptick in scores since the exam was first administered in 1994, 12th-graders haven’t.
One bright spot: The minority gap closed somewhat for both blacks and Hispanics. At the fourth-grade level, the gap between Hispanic and white students decreased from 39 points in 1994 to 26 points in 2010. In eighth grade, the black-white gap narrowed by 5 points — from 28 points in 1994 to 23 in 2010.
Educators immediately suggested this tried-and-true solution: More tests (and presumably, standards by which to craft the tests). Supposedly, history gets the shaft because No Child Left Behind only mandates that students be tested in math and reading.
Actually, more state-level testing could be a part of the solution — but only at the state level. In Florida, for example, stiffer standards and more comprehensive tests have yielded impressive results, according to Heritage Foundation education expert Lindsey Burke. As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush says, “What gets tested, gets taught.” (Incidentally, that’s also what Sue Blanchette, president-elect of the National Council for Social Studies, said in the WSJ article.)
At the federal level, Burke said, national history standards have been tried — and overwhelmingly defeated (as they should have been!). In the 1990s, the push for federal standards in education started with history standards, but the poorly written metrics quickly revealed just why the federal government should stay out of curriculum-crafting: Subjects like social studies are extremely subjective.
Today, the push for national standards has begun anew with the development of “Common Core State Standards” in English and math — but even these more objective subjects shouldn’t be the province of federal standard-setting. Whatever subjects they address, national academic standards threaten a host of problems.
Bottom line: Parents and teachers know the children they teach personally and so can adapt their approach to accommodate the learning needs of the child. Distant, unelected bureaucrats simply can’t.
Which brings me back to the woeful lack of knowledge today’s fourth- and eighth-grade students display. My first thought upon reading the article in The Wall Street Journal had nothing to do with “education policy” and had everything to do with my family. Most of what I learned about history as a kid I learned from the books I checked out at the library on summer excursions with my mom and brother — or at the dinner table, where I’d listen to my dad and mom “talk politics.”
Teachers alone can’t turn around test results like those reported by the WSJ this morning — and Congress’ “help” would only create more red tape for states. But parents have a prime opportunity to teach the basics to their children, if they’ll only take it.