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U.S. 8th graders don’t know much U.S. history

Eighth graders across the country don’t know U.S. history that well, according to newly released national test scores.

The results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also called the Nation’s Report Card, show eighth-grade students scoring lower on average on the 2018 U.S. history assessment compared to 2014, when the test was previously administered.

As I discuss here, the Nation’s Report Card is the only assessment that measures what students know and can do in various subjects across the nation and states. For the U.S. history exam, test results only give a national snapshot, as results are not broken down by state. (On test results that are broken down by state, you might be surprised to learn that Mississippi’s black and Hispanic students outperform Minnesota’s black and Hispanic students in both math and reading!)

Test scores are not the only indicator of success, but they play a key role in evaluating learning because they are objective, standardized measures of student achievement on academic or proficiency standards.

Breaking Down the U.S. History Test Results

Seventy-two percent of eighth-grade students reported taking a class mainly focused on U.S. history. But only 15 percent of tested students are NAEP proficient or above proficient.

Social studies subjects should be given similar classroom priority such as reading and mathematics because they teach knowledge and skills that are essential to a healthy democracy. Given the recent attempts to rewrite American history and the politicization going on inside public school classrooms, declining test results in U.S. history are concerning.

Half of the progress students made on this exam since 1994 when it was first administered was erased by the recent four-point decrease. Since 2010, scores on this exam have been low and stagnant.

Out of the approximately 16,400 eighth-grade students recently assessed, only the top-performing students (those in the 90th percentile) saw no significant change in scores when compared to 2014 scores. When broken down by race, white, black, and Hispanic eighth-graders all scored lower. Asian students had no significant change in scores.

The U.S. history assessment includes four themes—Democracy, Culture, Technology, and World Role—and the overall average score decrease was reflected in all areas. Students answered questions through either selected-response, short constructed-response, or extended constructed-response. Below is a breakdown of the themes.

Democracy: Change and continuity in American democracy: ideas, institutions, events, key figures, and controversies.

Culture: The gathering and interactions of peoples, cultures, and ideas.

Technology: Economic and technological changes and their relation to society, ideas, and the environment.

World Role: The changing role of America in the world.

There were also eight overlapping chronological periods included in the assessment.

  • Beginnings to 1607
  • Colonization, settlement, and communities (1607 to 1763)
  • The Revolution and the new nation (1763 to 1815)
  • Expansion and reform (1801 to 1861)
  • Crisis of the Union: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850 to 1877)
  • The development of modern America (1865 to 1920)
  • Modern America and the World Wars (1914 to 1945)
  • Contemporary America (1945 to present)

Education Week reports the decline in history scores “marks a bitter irony,” given the present health care pandemic.

The coronavirus has sent historians, public health officials, educators, and armchair pundits alike to interrogate the past—like the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, the polio scare of the early 1950s, and the HIV/AIDS tragedy of the 1980s and 1990s—in search of clues on how to handle the current crisis. In that sense, the motto of the U.S. Archives, which houses the nation’s most important historical documents, feels especially relevant: What’s past is prologue.

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