Who Fought in the Korean War? Don’t Ask High School Seniors

U.S. students may know more about Lady Gaga than Abraham Lincoln.

Just 12 percent of 12th graders demonstrated proficiency in American history on a federal test, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” according to data released today by the Education Department. Only one in five could name China as a combatant in the Korean War. Overall, seniors showed no improvement in their scores since 2006, the last time the test was given.

The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress follow a call last week by Education Secretary Arne Duncan for more flexibility in carrying out the country’s education-testing law, which he says focuses on math and reading at the expense of other subjects.

“We as a nation must pay more attention to the teaching of U.S. history,” Diane Ravitch, a former assistant U.S. Education Secretary under George H.W. Bush, said in a statement released by the board overseeing the history test. “We should make sure that there is time for it in the school day.”

In a nationally representative sample of public and private schools, 7,000 fourth-graders, 11,800 eighth graders and 12,400 12th graders participated in the most recent test, which was administered last year.

Only 20 percent of fourth graders achieved scores that were considered proficient or better in history. Seventeen percent of eighth graders scored proficient or better.

David Driscoll, chair of the board that administers the test, noted some bright spots. Though only eighth graders improved scores in a statistically significant way since 2006, overall results increased since 1994. In fourth grade, historically lower-performing groups, including black and Hispanic students, made larger-than-average gains since 1994.

Achievement Gap

Closing this “achievement gap” has been a major focus of U.S. education policy, especially the No Child Left Behind Law, enacted by President George W. Bush in 2002.

“We are encouraged by the progress of our fourth and eighth graders, particularly by the gains being made by students who traditionally have been among the lowest performers,” Driscoll, former Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, said in a statement.

The rising results for fourth graders may have more to do with their improved reading skills than their history knowledge, said Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University. Fewer than half of students at that grade level have had more than two hours a week devoted to social studies, which may or may not mean history, she said.

When fourth graders could recognize Abraham Lincoln’s picture, only 9 percent could give two reasons why he was important, according to Ravitch.

To contact the reporter on this story: John Hechinger in Boston at jhechinger@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman at jkaufman17@bloomberg.net.

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