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.