How well do you know history?

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, part of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, today released The Nation’s Report card for history in our schools. Only about one in four students is “proficient” in history.

Twenty percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders, and 12 percent of twelfth-graders performed at or above the proficient level on the 2010 U.S. history assessment. Those numbers haven’t budged considerably in decades.

There are a few bright spots. In grade 8, scores for black and Hispanic students were higher in 2010 compared to all previous assessment years and the score gaps between these students and their white peers narrowed since 2006. At grade 12, scores for white, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander students were higher in 2010 than in 1994.

History isn’t stressed in schools — not like reading and math — and our kids show it. Only 9 percent of fourth graders could identify a photograph of Abraham Lincoln and state two reasons for his importance.

Some educators blame the The No Child Left Behind Law for a reduction in attention paid to history.

“They’ve narrowed the curriculum to teach to the test. History has been deemphasized,” Lee White, executive director of the National History Coalition, told the Huffington Post. “You can’t expect kids to have great scores in history when they’re not being taught history.”

True. But No Child Left Behind wasn’t enacted until 2001. Today’s report compares test results to 1994. Some scores were higher than then; some were lower, but none changed very much.

Here are examples of some of the question 12th graders have been asked in recent years. Try your luck.

Here’s a copy of the complete report.

In the first hour of the program on Friday, MPR’s Midmorning will consider our weak history knowledge. Guests are: Brian Balogh, professor in the department of history at the University of Virginia and co-host of the radio show “Backstory: With the American History Guys” and Rick Shenkman, author and historian. He is editor and founder of George Mason University’s History News Network, and author of several books, including “legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History.

  • Heather


  • Kassie

    I got 13 out of 15 and some of the questions I guessed on. And I have a degree in History. The problem with “history” is that is isn’t like math. You don’t have to know X in order to learn Y. So people can learn all sorts of thing depending on where a teacher or curriculum decides to specialize. I know tons and tons about race theory/history and labor unions but almost nothing about military history. Also, some of those questions were more political than historical.

  • Tyler

    11. And I used more deductive reasoning than recall of history.

    All this is moot, what with Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck practicing the fine art of revisionist history.

  • Jeff


    My complaint in high school was that not enough time was left at the end of the year for 20th century history. Sure, it is important to have a strong base, but it was frustrating to not know what more modern history, like WWI and WWII, was about! (I graduated in 1988.)

  • Bob I

    ‘’ sounds like one of the sites Obama would have bashed in that gov’t waste video. (14/15, by the way)

  • Dylan

    This test exhibits a symptom that turns a lot of people off to history in general: A lot of emphasis on random factoids (“which of these groups favored sticking with the gold standard?”) and not much emphasis on context and explanation (“what are the pros and cons of the gold standard and why is it important?”). If these questions accurately reflect the curriculum, then the way history is taught in schools is largely to blame for why so few students care about it. When I talk about history to my kids, I talk about why it’s important and how their lives might be different if history had happened differently. They can relate to that. If I presented it as a string of facts that don’t have any relevance to them, I’d bore them to sleep.

  • John P.

    15/15 Correct! Hooray for me! One lucky guess and a couple of educated guesses. I’m old, but hates history in school since it was mostly memorization of dates. I would have to says that I have learned most of what I know outside of school.

    Besides the influence of NCLB, is it possible that the recent politicization of history has encouraged schools to shy away from it? I am thinking of battles in Texas especially. I hope that’s not the case. That would be exactly the wrong response.

  • 14

    The picture for the book question was too small, but I guessed correctly.

    And I knew none of the answers myself… fortunately I was able to google the answers. So who needs history classes for tests like this?!

  • FC

    13. But honestly I know none of the answers to these questions because of high school history. Excellent college history professors and an appetite for reading history and biographies got me to 13. (Well, that and process of elimination.)

  • davidz


    This quiz captures the rough trends of American history. It’s better than having to know “who was President in 1834”, but I think it could do better. But then again, history in multiple choice will miss out on nuance. It has to, in order to break it down.

    Let’s hear it for long-form essay questions!

  • Jim Shapiro

    I got ’em all right, but I took an over-educated guess on several.

    I found the test to be extremely challenging, and don’t think that I would have scored as “proficient” at 18, with all of the inherent distractions that go with the territory at that age.

    Although I completely agree with the “those who refuse to learn from history….” thing,

    I believe that the “Why” and “How” tend to be more useful than the who, what and when.

  • Shannon

    13. And I’m teaching US history to undergrads (close to finishing ye olde PhD). (Sidebar: Carter, to me, is too recent to be history!)

    Dylan, you make good points. The struggle with teaching students about history is to simultaneously say “it’s not about facts” but then present them with multiple choice tests that are based solely on facts. Some are important to know. The gold standard question is more integral to late 19th century American history than people might think. It was a major part of the Populist Party platform, and the Republicans adopted it in certain states to oust the Populists from being a contending party whilst simultaneously undercutting the Democrats from doing the same. It was a big development toward what we understand as modern party politics that are unique to the US (unofficial 2 party system).

    Some facts are necessary for context, most are trivial tidbits. But there’s a difference between knowing that John Adams wanted to have the president be addressed as “His Highness” before “Mr. President” was decided and that women got the right to vote in 1920. I suspect that if there were a better understanding of how recent it was that all people in the U.S. got their rights and how they got them (for instance, a southern Senator wrote “gender” into Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 hoping that the promise of gender equality would lead to a failure in ratification).

    A struggle within the academy right now is how to split US history better so more can be taught. Beginning in 1600 (contact) is controversial, but starting that early (or, certainly, any earlier) makes it tough to get through the traditional 1877 mark for first semester (high school or college). When I was in high school in the early 2000s, we didn’t even get to Carter (perhaps why I got that question wrong…).

    Fundamentally, history is gathering evidence, analyzing it, and bringing it together to address an issue or event in the past in some meaningful way. I don’t care if people know the specific date of battles in World War II, but the History Channel sure does. Unfortunately, the History Channel sexifies that side of history and does little to promote the analysis and thought behind history. Some shows on PBS do that, but with a significantly lower budget and viewership. History is fundamental to building American society. We share very little overall outside of being Americans, so promoting a knowledge of our nation’s history is integral to building a sense of nationalism. This idea was present at the foundation of the nation (which is why colonies and states allowed girls to go to school – so they could be literate and teach their children and groom good future citizens), and it should be made more central now.

  • BJ


    almost 13.

    Can’t say I disagree with what Dylan wrote above.

  • Shannon

    Writing is most effective when one finishes one’s sentences…sorry I trailed in that second paragraph. It was just to say that people might be more interested in the nuance of history and how things got done if they knew how precarious rights are and how recently people got them entirely.

  • Jim Shapiro

    History for us Westerners has mostly been written by the victors/dominant culture, which has tended to be white male ensconced.

    Nice departures from that general rule are “A People’s History” by Howard Zinn, and the works of Eduardo Galeano for a Latin American perspective.

    The History Channel is dollar-driven Hollywood entertainment feeding the least common denominator testosterone driven desire to see things blow up.

    Bob, the gift that you share with your bio pieces is valuable beyond price.

  • Bob Collins

    //My complaint in high school was that not enough time was left at the end of the year for 20th century history.

    This was my experience as well. I can’t recall ever getting past the civil war in any history class. And that was in the ’70s. There’s all that history since then kids today would need, too.

    Of course, we didn’t have the History Channel, and Ken Burns and all of the other avenues to learning a *little* bit about history.

    Insert your own “but they know about (some popular culture icon)” comment here.

  • Josh

    14 with a couple educated guesses.

  • matt

    13 and agreement with Dylan.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Perhaps if kids learned about Viet Nam in high school, we wouldn’t have lost 6,000 dead and 40,000 severely wounded in our current debacles.

  • Bob Collins

    //his test exhibits a symptom that turns a lot of people off to history in general: A lot of emphasis on random factoids

    I don’t think you can apply a standard of a curriculum of history to the technically-mandated structure of a blog’s quiz.

    But I’ll bite anyway. You’re right, that facts alone do not create history, but what we can learn from history as you teach it still requires knowledge of a fact.

    If you don’t know that December 7 was the attack on Pearl Harbor, I question whether you can understand the timetable and conditions that led to war in the Pacific.

    If you don’t know that certain codifications of state law attempted to create a de facto state of slavery, I doubt whether full understanding of civil rights is possible.

    I’m not as concerned, I guess that 4th graders can’t figure out why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure in history. I *am* concerned that it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if a fair number of high schoolers couldn’t either. I’d have loved to see that question.

    BTW, I *do* think it’s important to understand the dates of Pacific War battles or at least the order in which they occurred. Each one had a relationship to the previous one.

  • Hillary

    14 without google, skipping the war of 1812 question because I couldn’t remember if it was b or d. I got stuck on the Battle of New Orleans and Battle of Lake Erie, and couldn’t remember the rest of it.

    I’m a little surprised how much I remember, my last US history class was in 2000 and I don’t read a lot of American history these days. Most of this I remembered from AP US History in 1998 (Mr. Butcher was the best teacher ever).

  • bsimon

    12, with one changed answer from right to wrong. Teachers always told me not to do that…

  • Justin

    14/15. And I have a degree in history. It makes me sad to see how little students nowadays know about our history. How does the saying go, “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it”, or something like that.

  • bsimon

    “I *do* think it’s important to understand the dates of Pacific War battles or at least the order in which they occurred. Each one had a relationship to the previous one.”

    At what grade level?

    My perception from long-ago high & elementary school is that we spent a lot of time on wars (WWII, Civil & Revolutionary), but not much on what Dylan describes – how history impacts us today. The causes & effects of the big picture stuff – why did the Germans invade Poland? Why did they keep going? Why did the Japanese attack the US? How did the war lead to US superpowerdom in subsequent decades? – is far more important than knowing the proper sequence of the battles of Midway, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.

  • Duke Powell

    14 out of 15 for me. The one I missed is something I’m gonna have to research because I believe their answer is wrong.

  • Duke Powell

    Count me as one who isn’t buying the supposed fact that “During the 1500’s and 1600’s, the major cause of death among Indians of the Americas was Infections and diseases brought by Europeans.”

    I’d say the major cause of death was natural causes.

  • matt

    I agree with bsimom. In USMC boot camp we spent a lot of time on the battles but the US oil embargo was never discussed. In high school there was a little discussion of the Burma road but most of our WWII discussion was Pearl Harbor-> atomic bomb in the Pacific and facism-appeasment->post-war rise of Socialism. Both designed to create a healthy fear/hatred of the Soviet Empire. Lend-Lease was a term for memorization but to understand its implications was not expected.

    Again going back to Palin/Revere it is not the details, bells, boats and dates that matters neary as much as understanding Pacific hegemony, mercantilism and the other concepts that caused the details. Sadly the danger lies in the presentation of the concepts especially in our Eurocentric educational system.

  • Rich

    15 out of 15, no guesses. But I still don’t consider myself knowledgeable. We would all do well to make it a routine to study what came before us.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Duke – why the need to deny historical medical forensics?

    If history is a little uncomfortable for you, you can just say that everybody dies of heart failure, and you’ll almost never be wrong.

  • Connie

    15! But loved and still love history, read quite a bit, even attend lectures. Since I graduated from high school in 1970, I’m not sure my affection for history started then, but I do remember my college freshman courses. (Heck, I still have the books.) I recommend the book “Lies my teacher told me” by James Loewen. It talks about the troubles we have teaching history in the US.

  • Duke Powell

    Jim – I’m perfectly willing to be wrong but it seems to me that given the numbers and distribution of Indians in the Americas vs the Europeans in that time frame argues against this supposed “fact.”

    Personally, I think someone just made it up.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Duke – Touche’. As you probably know, 67.39% of statistics are fabricated by fraudulent academicians.

    I always took the info on the pandemic destruction of native american peoples by diseases that they had no immunity to at face value.

    But who knows. It might just be a myth propagated by lefty professors who pined for the times of the moral purity of dark-skinned people whose idyllic lives of cannibalism and human sacrifice were cruelly interrupted by gold hungry white guys.

  • Duke Powell

    Jim – Yeah. Right. My thoughts exactly 🙂

  • Justin Smith

    15/15, and I don’t have a degree in history

  • Duke Powell

    Jim – Yeah. Right. My thoughts exactly 🙂

  • Elizabeth T


    Sure, I had to think about a couple – but the point is whether I could deduce the correct answer based upon other information I already have. e.g. the Gold Standard question.

    I deeply regret that “history” classes seem to stop at t-40 yrs. In my h.s. American history classes (c. 1982), the most recent thing we discussed was WW2. At no point in any course in jr. or sr. high school did we ever discuss events of the day, e.g. Carter’s Camp David Accords.

    As mentioned above, history becomes interesting when one learns why and how the disparate facts go together. i.e., the FDR Supreme Court is absolutely fascinating in the context of the balance of powers.

  • Al

    13. Interesting and very challenging questions. I can absolutely believe the scores were low.

  • Momkat

    14/15–my best ever. I guess I was paying more attention to history than I thought.

  • bench

    11 and I took AP US History in High School…

  • M

    14/15, but that’s because you could figure out the correct answer, something your news quizzes make almost impossible. If this had been a real News Quiz, all of the answers would have appeared probable, and guessers would have gotten their usual 9/15.

  • Bob Collins

    I’ve retired the News Cut Quiz. Too much kvetching.

  • susan smith

    12/15. and i should have gotten one of those wrong answers correct as i knew i chose the wrong answer. be that as it may, there was a FRIENDS episode where no one knew what WWI was about. that is not that long ago. kind of a slap in the face to families of those veterans. and, well, to the United States.

  • Cara

    12. Should have been 13 but I clicked before I planned.

    NOOOO Don’t retire the NewsCut quiz!

  • Russ

    I scored 13 out of 15, but as a Montessori teacher and a lover of history, I still had to make a couple of guesses. I think this leads to some of the problems with teaching history. There is so much of it to study and so little time is placed on the need of learning any history. Scares me that so many people know so little about our worlds past.

  • Jill

    I had my 16 yr old daughter take this test – after listening to it while driving in my car this morning. She got 11 out of 15 correct. Some of her answers were wrong because she has not studied all history. She also commented that some of the questions were so “common knowledge, like, how could anybody get that wrong”!

    I had her do the test because she loves history…me, on the other hand, would probably fail the test miserably!

  • LT Harrison


    I agree with many of the comments made-especially Dylan’s, but Bob Collins’ points are valid. The problem with this or any quiz is that it asks content questions, but cannot measure how deeply we understand the material. It is more important to teach deeper conceptual thinking and to show connections to our modern lives and or other disciplines.

  • SB Baker

    There is a huge problem with how American history is represented in textbooks. Minnesota History has been trying to correct that with the publication of two Minnesota history textbooks, with the second printing much superior to the first, You cannot talk about American history without a discussion of the genocide committed by Europeans in this country to try to eradicate the Native Americans, the lust for land and gold in the west and the resulting wars against Mexico, and the hundreds of years that slavery was tolerated. Today, the “American Wars” are still displaying the Ugly American. It is difficult to teach this to a fourth grade student. Probably not even appropriate.

  • geno

    !5 of 15! But then I’m over 70 y.o., so I should know a little bit of history by this age!

  • Roman Soiko

    I got all 15, without much hesitation.

    This is basic high school American history

  • Random Teenage Girl

    14 out of 15 and I’ve been on summer vacation for a while. I wouldn’t say that these questions were difficult, but that’s just me. I guess it also depends on how you were taught. My teacher hardly ever used the textbook in class, using visual aides such as video clips, slide shows, etc. She was also really into history, so that made everyone else into history. We also studied late 19th-21st centuries this year, so that could contribute to the end product.

    By the way, does anyone else think that schools should be more hands on when it comes to history? I’m not looking for an argument, just some opinions.