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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 law, known as No Child Left Behind, which he says focuses on math and reading at the expense of other subjects.

“These results tell us that, as a country, we are failing to provide children with a high-quality, well-rounded education,” Duncan said in a statement today. “That’s why we’re putting a greater emphasis on courses like history, art, drama and music in our efforts to fix No Child Left Behind.”

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 history test, which was administered last year. The periodic federal report cards measure knowledge of math, reading, science and six other subjects.

The Declaration of What?

Only 20 percent of fourth graders achieved scores that were considered proficient or better in history. About a third could explain the purpose of the Declaration of Independence.

Seventeen percent of eighth graders scored proficient or better. Only 14 percent could explain why President Richard Nixon resigned.

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.

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.

Reading Skills

The rising results for fourth graders may have more to do with their improved reading skills than their history knowledge, 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.

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, said Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University.

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

“We as a nation must pay more attention to the teaching of U.S. history,” Ravitch said. “We should make sure that there is time for it in the school day.”

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