Younger students have made significant gains in their knowledge of history in recent years, but American high school seniors' grasp of the nation's past has shown virtually no improvement in the past two decades, according to a major new national survey.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, an arm of the federal Education Department, released its 2010 "report card" on history Tuesday, and, while experts are encouraged that fourth- and eighth-graders know more than they did in years past, 12th-graders have shown little progress in their understanding of the U.S. role in global affairs, the concept of American democracy, technological breakthroughs and other key areas.
"All of these students are going to be voters in a year. ... They should be well informed," said Diane Ravitch, an education professor at New York University who participated in a question-and-answer session with reporters after the survey was released.
For example, the survey found that only 22 percent of 12th-graders could identify China's role during the Korean War. Most didn't know that the country backed North Korea during its fight with South Korea and the U.S. and its allies.
Other questions focused on the Civil War, the civil rights movement, colonization, the world wars and other events.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he was disappointed by the results, the lowest of the seven subject areas tested by NAEP, which also produces national report cards on reading, mathematics, science and other fields.
"These results tell us that, as a country, we are failing to provide children with a high-quality, well-rounded education," Mr. Duncan said in a statement.
NAEP conducted similar surveys in 1994, 2001 and 2006, allowing national comparisons on an unprecedented scale. The study ranked students at three levels: basic, proficient and advanced understanding of history. It relied on written test results from 7,000 fourth-graders, 11,800 eighth-graders and 12,400 high school seniors.
Students were asked to respond to multiple-choice and essay questions.
Fourth- and eighth-graders' scores have risen steadily since 1994. That year, 64 percent of fourth-graders had at least a basic knowledge of history. In 2010, 73 percent achieved that mark. There has also been a 3 percent jump in the number who are considered proficient, but no change in the advanced designation.
The same held true for eighth-graders. In 1994, 61 percent had a basic understanding or better, but that number has also climbed each testing year, hitting 69 percent in 2010. The number considered proficient has risen from 14 percent to 17 percent, though NAEP officials stress that improvements that small are within the survey's statistical margin of error.
Twelfth-graders, on the other hand, haven't kept up with their younger counterparts. There has been no statistically significant increase in the number of high school seniors with a basic grasp of history since 1994, when 43 percent hit the mark, the report states. There also has been no change in the number considered proficient or advanced.
Some experts believe more uniform curricula across the country could help, but unlike math and reading, attitudes among educators differ across the nation on what should be emphasized in history classrooms.
"We'll never be able to agree" on history standards nationwide, said Steven L. Paine, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, a 26-member panel which sets policies for NAEP.
The report also found that minority students, most notably blacks and Hispanics, have closed the gap with white students in recent years. But that, too, is primarily limited to fourth- and eighth-graders.
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