- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 22, 2002

Many American students have improved their knowledge of geography, but one in three fourth-graders still can't identify his or her home state on a map, according to a federal government report released yesterday.

Since 1994 the knowledge of U.S. students about the world has improved, the federal government said in its 2001 national geography "report card."

However, one-third of fourth-graders who participated can't identify their home states on a map, and one in four eighth-graders doesn't recognize Florida as a peninsula.

"The results show us that we have much more work to do," Education Secretary Rod Paige said at the National Geographic Society headquarters yesterday, where educators reviewed the findings of the 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) on geography.

The good news is that 74 percent of fourth- and eighth-grade students who participated have a basic or better knowledge of geography, said Gary W. Phillips, deputy commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which conducts the NAEP projects.

This is a marked improvement from 1994, when the first NAEP geography test showed that 70 percent of fourth-graders and 71 percent of eighth-graders participating had at least a basic grasp of geography, he said.

Moreover, the biggest gains in both age groups were in the lowest-performing percentiles.

However, high school seniors had disappointing scores: In 1994, 70 percent of seniors had basic or better scores, but despite several years of academic efforts, their 2001 score was 71 percent, not statistically different.

This is unacceptable, Mr. Paige said. American youth enter a world of "24-hour news cycles, global markets, high-speed Internet" and international challenges, he said. "In order for our children to be prepared to take their place in that world they must first understand it."

About 24,900 students participated in the NAEP geography project. More than 90 percent attended public schools.

The tests covered physical aspects of the planet, environmental changes and relationships among people, places and regions. Maps were used in many questions. For instance:

cFourth-graders were asked to identify landforms such as deserts, mountains and plateaus on a map and analyze details such as elevations.

•Eighth-graders were asked to explain international trade routes, early civilizations, natural forces and time zones.

•Twelfth-graders were asked to read flow maps and explain complex issues such as population density, urbanization and tropical deforestation.

Geography appeared to be a strong subject for eighth-graders 63 percent said they studied countries and cultures at least once a week, in contrast with 52 percent of high school students who had geography classes on a weekly basis.

But when asked if geography was a favorite subject, 69 percent of eighth graders and 72 percent of seniors said they liked "other subjects better."

There's more to teaching geography than just "memorization of a lot of names and places," said Daniel E. Domenech, superintendent of schools in Fairfax County and a member of the NAEP governing board.

"That's why teacher training is so critical," he said.

Geography scores should go up if it is taught more frequently and with the help of technology, said Gilbert M. Grosvenor, chairman of the board of the National Geographic Society.

Teachers can make it fun, he said, recalling how as a child he was taught to remember the names of lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario with the phrase, "So Many Heroes Eat Oatmeal."

"I guarantee you those kids will never forget the order of the Great Lakes from west to east," he said.

Among other highlights of the NAEP report:

•The achievement gap between black and white fourth-grade students narrowed significantly, from 50 points in 1994 to 41 points last year.

•Among private school students, 91 percent of fourth-graders, 87 percent of eighth-graders and 80 percent of seniors scored in the basic or above categories.

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