Many students still lack grasp of U.S. history

Last night’s American Experience episode on PBS — The Last Days of Vietnam — was as good as it gets in public television — an incredibly poignant, artfully told story that happened 40 years ago this week.

(Video link)

It’s a story that also seems to be a well-kept secret, hiding out there as it does in plain sight. Our history.

That’s the way it is with American history. It’s not part of compulsory testing, so we’re not particularly good at it.

A survey published today shows it’s not getting any better.

The Nation’s Report Card on U.S. history shows only 18 percent of eighth-graders rated proficient or above in U.S. history. Only 27 percent were proficient in geography, and only 23 percent were rated proficient in civics.

The percentage of kids who are advanced in either history, geography, or civics you could count on one finger.

What would qualify someone as proficient? Knowing the answer to what this shaded area represents, for example.


It’s the Louisiana Purchase and, fortunately, 60 percent of the eighth-graders got it right. It was a multiple choice question.

One can make an argument that nobody really needs to know that it’s the Louisiana Purchase, I suppose. But it doesn’t get any better in matters of civics, which is about the here-and-now.

Take this pie-chart, for example.


Here are the possible answers:


This should’ve been easy. All one has to do is read what the pie chart is saying. This was just below the capacity of students with an average score, according to today’s report.

To its credit, perhaps, the report did not attempt to embarrass students by revealing what questions stumped them most often.

“Geography, U.S. history and civics are core academic subjects that must be a priority,” Terry Mazany, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, said in a statement accompanying the report. “They represent knowledge and skills that are fundamental to a healthy democracy. The lack of knowledge on the part of America’s students is unacceptable, and the lack of growth must be addressed.”

There is good news in the report. Two-thirds of students reported that civics was their favorite subject.

  • Jeff

    An aside from your main point (which is right on), I watched the PBS show also and I had no clue what went on even though I was alive and in college at the time (but I think everyone was weary of Vietnam by that time). It was fascinating – so much that I missed the Twins 7th inning rally. I also had no idea that Richard Armitage was a hero but I only know him as being vilified for the Valerie Plame outage.

  • Kassie

    In the multiple choice question listed, I see two possibly true answers.

    c) Hispanics and Asians will grow faster than other ethnic groups– True, it will grow faster than whites, native americans and blacks

    d) Blacks will grow faster than other groups– Also True, will grow faster than native americans and whites.

    So I can see why maybe kids don’t do so well.

    Also, standardized tests don’t test knowledge a lot of the time, they test how well kids take tests.

    • This is also true. But teachers say their curriculum now is dictated by the testing.

      • crystals

        My mantra as a teacher was that a well taught child can pass a standardized test. I still believe it.

        • Kassie

          I took my SAT and ACT one weekend apart from each other. On the SAT I scored in the bottom 12% in the country. On the ACT I scored in the top 2% in the country. Don’t tell me I became that much smarter/prepared/lucky over one week.

          Also, after college I corrected standardized tests for a job. We failed one girl, with a very well written essay, because she said she wanted to be a stripper and it was deemed inappropriate. She failed a test because someone didn’t like her choice of hypothetical future occupation. I also saw a lot of 3rd grade kids fail, mostly in urban areas, because a test section assumed they new what a lighthouse was and they just didn’t know what one was.

          • jon

            In a high school class that was clearly written essay test prep, I was told that if I didn’t know how to answer a question, I should just make something up, the tests were timed and I didn’t have time to debate philosophical questions in my head I needed to start writing, or at least building a outline of what I was going to write!

            Then in a practice test (pre-standardized-test test) I was asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” a long and winding explanation of what I hoped my entire life would culminate in filled my head… no time to write what I hoped would read like my autobiography…
            So I made something up, something simple… an electrician.
            My teacher read a well thought out paper (based largely around commercials I heard on the radio from the electricians union at the time) and gave me a high grade, and some positive feed back on the paper.
            She then took the liberty of signing me up for the electricians union mailing list…

            I hope this poor child who wanted to be a stripper didn’t get a similar teacher….

          • BJ

            Long story to get to a great punch line.

          • crystals

            You’re totally right on all counts, of course–standardized tests have been shown to be written from a white frame and there’s bias involved that NEVER should be (your example of the essay makes me want to barf and write an apology note to that student on behalf of the entire educational system). And I think the ACT/SAT are different beasts than the K-12 standardized tests, and different from each other (which contributes to why you were in very different percentiles).

            Still, overall, I stand by my experience. Look at the actual content of K-12 standardized tests these days. The bar to PASS these tests, of very basic content for that grade level, is horrifically low. If a kid is getting a fairly decent education and is not terribly disadvantaged in the test-taking process (which some kids are, to be sure), I think any kid can and should be able to pass.

    • jon

      a pair of pie charts is a terrible visualization for this data set…

      the non-Hispanic white population could also be growing rapidly, but we don’t have a total number just percentages of the population…
      According to the pie chart, the white population could be in dramatic decline while other ethnicitiess are relatively flat.
      Hispanics might also be in decline, just not as fast of a decline as other ethnic groups…

      An area graph that shows the total population as well as the break down by ethnicity would be a much better visualization to present the data, that would also allow for a visual on the trend.

      • Postal Customer

        I agree. It’s a bad question. Answer (A) could technically be correct even though the two pies do not imply it. Also, (A) does not define “rapidly.” It would be clearer to say something like “the non-Hispanic white population will grow rapidly relative to other groups.

        • jon

          That’s a fair point 2005-2030 is 25 years… is that a “rapid” change in population?
          It’s longer than most of the kids taking the test have been alive, maybe even the age of some of their parents.
          25 years might be a “rapid” time frame for a newscut reader (I don’t know what the average age is for newscut readers, but I’m assuming it’s much older than the average 8th grader) but for an 8th grader… that’s like forever.

        • Kassie

          B could be true also. If the total population declines dramatically, and Native Americans hold on to 1% of the population, their numbers will decline significantly.

      • Jack Ungerleider

        The problem is choices C and D. If based on the data provided, percent of the overall population then the Non-Hispanic Black and Asian populations are growing at the same rate (2% of the total). The best way to phrase these answers would be to swap Non-Hispanic Blacks from choice D with Hispanics in choice C.

        • jon

          The charts give no indication that ANY population is growing.

          All ethnicity could be in decline, and the entire population shrinking.

          The graphs don’t provide enough information to answer the question, and depending on your presumptions any of the answers could be correct…

      • Al

        Is a pair of pie charts *ever* a good data visualization? 🙂

        • Kassie

          I think if you wanted to show someone what one group of people like for pie preferences, then it is perfect. 10% like Cherry, 25% like Pecan… But for anything changing over time, they are terrible.

          • jon

            While two pie charts is a very bad idea to show a time series, it is always best to enjoy two pies over a series of time.

          • Postal Customer

            Well, I think in this case, if you looked only at the charts, you can see how the share of the population among those groups changes. So the charts themselves might not be terrible. (Printing it in color would be much better though.)

            However, there isn’t enough other information to reliably infer the answer to the question. I don’t think we can judge the intelligence of students based on their performance on this one question.

        • ..

        • jon

          It can be.
          If I wanted to compare ethnic groups in the US vs. the UK on a per Capita basis, a pie chart would be a great graphic (though I’d go with a 100% stacked bar myself).
          In the event you are making an info graphic and want to put “eyes” on something, two pie charts works well.

          You could even fix this visualization by making the size of the pie reflect the size of the entire population; though with only two pie charts that’d still be a bit of a struggle to read.

          • Al

            I’m also a stacked bar devotee. We’re a small but loyal band.

    • “D” didn’t say blacks will grow faster than other groups. It said other ETHNIC groups.

      I’m reminded of an instruction from test-givers back in the day: Don’t overthink it.

      • jon

        Sounds like the instructions they gave to the test writers.

      • Kassie

        If we are going to get all technical, there is only one ethnic group listed, Hispanics, the rest are racial groups. So then there is no correct answer because C doesn’t work because Hispanics aren’t growing faster than the other ethnic groups listed because no other ethnic groups are listed.

  • dnarex

    What is the point of the pie chart question in this article? It is a straightforward math problem. If teachers are concentrating on math, they are failing at that as well.

    • Postal Customer

      As other comments here discuss, it is not straightforward. It’s a poorly-designed question.

  • Sandra Day O’Connor has weighed in:

    “Our education system is focused on math and science because we understand that if
    we fail to prepare kids now for the jobs of the future, we will likely exclude
    them forever from the workforce and economic prosperity. The numbers released
    today by the Nation’s Report Card on civics and history are truly
    frightening, and demonstrate that we must put the same emphasis on these
    subjects that we are putting on math and science.

    Less than a quarter of our eighth graders know what they need to know to be contributing, active members of our democracy. If we do not teach them now, we risk excluding them forever from our democratic process, and we risk leaving them completely ignorant of
    how our judicial process works unless they meet it face to face.

    We cannot ignore this problem. The numbers we just read in the NAEP report tell us that there is virtually no chance that young people understand and know the historical context for the current state of our democracy. Without knowing our history, how their country works and how they can take ownership of their civic position, young people face an even greater challenge for changing the course of their collective future.

    • jon

      We can exclude people from the democratic process for not understanding civics?! Why have we not done this before?!

      Why we might not needed to hear about how something is unconstitutional from people who don’t know what is in the constitution ever again!


      • BJ

        I think we do exclude them already – they stopped voting a long time ago.

  • Gary F
    • crystals

      Oh FFS. This isn’t about who voted for Obama or what Democrats do or don’t know or Republican’s do or don’t know, this is about the average citizen in our country not giving a $&@# about Congress and elected officials who aren’t their own.

      Not EVERYTHING has to be partisan, Gary.

      • >>Not EVERYTHING has to be partisan, Gary.<<

        You're familiar with Gary's posts, right?

        • Jerry

          He’s not always partisan. He has yet to find a way to connect Obama or the Clintons to baseball.

    • Matt K

      Do you really want to play that game, Gary?

      • kennedy

        We had our own shame in Minnesota when a (presumably) sober woman had to be chastised by John McCain for incorrectly identifying Obama as an Arab.

  • Matt K

    Should we be surprised when multiple state Legislatures are trying to write slavery out of AP US History curriculum…

    • Jerry

      Why teach American History when you can teach American Mythology?