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High School Seniors’ U.S. History Scores Remain Flat

Twelfth graders’ scores on a national U.S. history exam haven’t improved since 2001.

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High school seniors' scores on a national history assessment remained flat between 2006 and 2010, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a government organization.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests public and private school students in grades 4, 8, and 12 in mathematics, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, and U.S. history. The history test was given in 1994, 2001, and 2006. History scores were lower than any other subject, though NCES Commissioner Jack Buckley cautioned against comparing tests.

"Trying to compare proficiency across subjects is problematic," he said during a conference call with reporters. "Tests are done independently across all subjects. While if you line them all up, history looks lower, it's not a fair comparison."

NCES divides the 500-point scale into three passing benchmarks—"basic," "proficient," and "advanced." Just 45 percent of 12th graders scored at or above "basic" on the history test. About 10 percent of seniors scored "proficient," and 1 percent are considered to have an "advanced" knowledge of U.S. history. A student is considered to have a "basic" knowledge of U.S. history if he or she scores at least a 294 on the 500-point scale. In 2010, the average score for seniors was 288, which was a slight improvement from 1994 scores, but not significantly different from scores in 2001 or 2006.

Younger students performed better: 73 percent of 4th graders and 69 percent of 8th graders scored at or above the "basic" level.

A racial and ethnic gap remained about the same. On average, white students scored 27 points higher than black students and 20 points higher than Hispanic students. Neither gap was significantly different than previous years. Males, on average, scored four points better than females.

The results aren't surprising for Cathy Gorn, executive director of the National History Day competition, a kind of science fair for history in which middle and high school students spend months doing original research about a single topic. She says a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) has left history an afterthought in many districts.

[Learn how companies are promoting STEM education.]

"We continue to leave history education behind the other subjects," she says. "It's a really serious problem in terms of our commitment to teaching all subjects effectively. History is often taught with a boring textbook, where students memorize names and dates."

Students who participate in National History Day outperform those who don't participate in her program on history, reading, writing, math, and science exams, according to a recent study. Gorn claims students who do original research and learn about some of history's interesting characters become more excited with the subject.

"We're not going to see any changes until we're teaching in a more effective and a more engaging way," she says.

[Learn how states can better evaluate teachers.]

William Gaudelli, an associate professor of social studies and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, says history education needs to be tailored to focus on past events that affect present-day life.

"We need to take issues that are salient today, like the healthcare debate, and try to understand it historically over time," he says. "These 'Bus Stop Tours' that we get involved with—teaching everything from native peoples to contemporary America—that's not possible in 180 days of teaching."

The test measured students' knowledge in eight different time periods, from the formation of the colonies to the present day. The questions were divided into four historical themes: democracy, culture, technology, and world role.

The report included several sample ideas and questions. At the "basic" level, students were expected to interpret a Cold War political cartoon. At the "proficient" level, students were expected to understand the U.S. entry into World War I. At the "advanced" level, students were expected to evaluate arguments about the use of atomic bombs.

Testing a vast area of knowledge in a one hour exam is one of NAEP's biggest flaws, according to Gaudelli, who taught high school history for 10 years before he began training teachers. It's important work, given that less than two thirds of high school history teachers hold a history degree, according to a government report released last week.

Gaudelli says the College Board's Advanced Placement U.S. history exam's longer length and substantial free response question section may make it a better assessment than the NAEP test, which he calls "broken."

[Learn why more students are taking AP science and math classes.]

The number of students who had access to an AP U.S. history course has risen over the past two decades. Eighty percent of high schoolers had that opportunity in 2009, compared to 51 percent in 1990. Even students who took that course scored low on the NAEP test, though they outperformed students who took normal history courses. The average score for students who had taken or were enrolled in an AP U.S. history course was 304, barely above the "basic" benchmark, while students who hadn't taken the course scored an average of 284.

Students fare better on the College Board's AP U.S. history exam—about 53 percent of the more than 380,000 students who took the exam in 2010 received a "passing" score of 3 or higher on a 5-point scale.

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