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High School Seniors' Geography Scores Don't Improve

Twelfth grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress geography test flatline.

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High school seniors' scores on a national geography assessment showed no improvement between 2001 and 2010, and scores have declined from 1994 levels, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests students from both public and private schools in a variety of subjects in order to gauge national trends in achievement levels. Subject tests are given to students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades; the last time the geography test was given was in 2001.

[Read about scores on the NAEP history exam.]

Between 2001 and 2010, seniors' average scores declined from 284 to 282 on the 500-point scale, which is not considered significantly different. In 1994, the average score for a 12th grader was 285.

A student who scores 282 is considered to have a "basic" understanding of geography, and should be able to understand concepts such as time zones and how economies of developing countries work, as well as be able to identify an activity that emits greenhouse gases.

Seventy percent of 12th graders scored at or above the "basic" level in 2010, and 20 percent performed at or above the "proficient" level. Just 1 percent of students performed at the "advanced" level, which required students to be able to explain why the U.S. exports and imports, describe wetland functions, and draw a cross section of South America, among other skills. The percentage of students who attained a "basic" achievement level remained the same between 1994 and 2010, but the percentage of students who scored "proficient" declined from 24 percent in 2001 to 20 percent in 2010.

In a survey released with the report, a majority of students said they studied natural resources, countries and cultures, and environmental issues once a month or more while in school. The study of environmental issues has increased since 1994: In that year, 63 percent of seniors said they studied environmental issues once a month or more. In 2010, 76 percent said they did.

A wide performance gap persisted between races. White 12th graders scored an average of 29 points higher than black students, and whites scored an average of 20 points higher than Hispanic students. Males scored an average of five points higher than females.

[Read an experts' ideas for closing the performance gap.]

Daniel Edelson, vice president of National Geographic's education division, says the results aren't surprising.

"I think that the report is a good example of what you get when you don't invest in an area," he says. "It's disappointing to me, but not unexpected. As a country we have not recognized the importance of geography."

Younger students showed some progress on the test. Fourth graders' scores increased from an average of 208 to 213, though eighth graders' average scores remained essentially flat, increasing from 260 to 261. More than a quarter of eighth grade students achieved a "proficient" level, the highest of any grade level. Roger Downs, a geography professor at Pennsylvania State University, says the trend with younger students can be explained by the country's approach to teaching the subject.

"Geography is taught as part of social studies in grades K-4," he said in a statement. "Geography typically appears in grades 7 or 8 as a stand-alone course with a 'world cultures' label. In high school, geography is rarely taught as a stand-alone course."

The major exception, Downs says, is Advanced Placement (AP) Human Geography. In 2010, 68,000 high school students took the AP exam in that subject, a 35 percent increase compared to 2009. In 2009, about half of the students who took the exam scored a 3 or higher on the 5-point scale.

National Geographic's Edelson says there doesn't necessarily need to be more stand-alone geography courses taught in high schools, but says the subject needs to be better integrated into classes such as history and earth science.

"Geography straddles the line between science and social studies," he says. "We think of it as a STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] discipline because it has the same importance for national security and global competitiveness as sciences do."

He says it's telling that there were nine years between NAEP geography exams. Other subject tests are usually given every three to five years. Math and reading are assessed every two years.

"When they decided to postpone the administration [of the geography tests], the geography education community expressed a lot of concern," he says, referring to a new testing schedule that placed a greater emphasis on math and reading after the No Child Left Behind law was passed in 2001. "But no one really cared."

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