published Thursday, June 16th, 2011

The United States’ history gap

More than half a century ago, the legendary Sam Cooke crooned that “I don’t know much about history ... .” It’s hard to say if the legendary singer’s words accurately reflected the general state of knowledge of the topic at that time or if he was exercising a bit of poetic license. If it was the former, things haven’t changed much.

Contemporary U.S. students don’t know much about history, either.

That’s the only verdict that can be drawn from a nationwide U.S. history test administered last year. According to a report released Tuesday, only 20 percent of those in the fourth grade, 17 percent of those in the eighth grade and 12 percent in the 12th grade demonstrated proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam. There’s no sugarcoating the results: Students’ understanding of the nation’s history is poor.

The scores indicate that student performance has barely improved since 2006, the last time the history exam was given. On the test’s 500-point scale, the average 12th-grade score dropped from 290 in 2006 to 288 last year. Eighth-graders’ average score rose from 263 to 266, and the fourth-grade average climbed from 205 to 214 in the same time frame. That’s precious little overall improvement during a time when schools emphasized strong curriculum and testing.

Federal officials said that the number of students who did not reach a basic level of achievement on the test is larger than the share who earned proficient or advanced scores. Overall, students scored more poorly on the history portion of the test than on math, reading, science, writing, civics, geography and economics. There’s no real explanation for the poor performance.

There are several theories.

Perhaps the most prevalent in education circles is that other academic disciplines — especially reading and math — have been emphasized at the expense of history since implementation of No Child Left Behind legislation. It demands that schools improve scores in those two disciplines, but does not specifically require similar improvements in other subject areas. Others say the teaching of social studies rather than the more specific U.S. history contributes to the decline. Whatever the reason, the lack of proficiency is troubling.

It suggests that a generation of students will reach voting age poorly equipped to make decisions that will have a direct bearing on the political, cultural and economic issues of the day. In the long run, that could help undermine the institutions and concepts vital not only to the nation’s history but to the path the United States will travel in years to come.

It need not be that way. History can be an engaging academic discipline that provides a window into the past and information useful in preparing for the future. The nation’s schools must find a will and a way to restore the subject to a place of prominence in the curriculum and in students’ lives.

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