Students Flunk History on Latest Report Card for Nation

Published July 1, 2002

“I believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival … it ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other…”
John Adams, writing about the signing of the
Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

John Adams would be delighted that his prediction had come true, with the celebration of Independence Day this month as a nationwide holiday.

But Adams would be devastated to learn that fewer than half of America’s fourth-graders (46 percent) understand what they’re celebrating, according to the latest grades in history announced on the Nation’s Report Card for 2001 by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Only one of three fourth-graders (35 percent) understood the significance of the Boston Tea Party.

Although the report card for fourth-graders and eighth-graders showed an improvement in achievement over the last time history was graded, in 1994, the overall level of achievement is so low U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige declared it “unacceptable.” Eighty-two percent of fourth-graders scored less than proficient on the exam, as did 83 percent of eighth-graders and 89 percent of twelfth-graders. In 1994, the corresponding figures were 83 percent, 86 percent, and 89 percent.

Under the guidelines for the test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), “proficient” means solid academic performance, a knowledge of important historical events, and the ability to analyze historical material. Most students are expected to perform at the proficient level. However, 57 percent of twelfth-graders fail to reach even the “basic” level of achievement, which signifies merely a partial grasp of needed skills and knowledge. Thirty-three percent of fourth-graders score below basic, as do 36 percent of eighth-graders.

“Basic is the bottom rung of the achievement ladder, and they didn’t even reach that lower rung,” commented Paige. Also, he emphasized, the questions that “stumped so many students involve the most fundamental concepts of our democracy, our growth as a nation and our role in the world.”

For example, only 46 percent of fourth-graders could identify the Declaration of Independence as the source of the passage, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Only 35 percent of eighth-graders knew that “Jim Crow” laws once enforced racial segregation.

Recent history was even less familiar to twelfth-graders. Only 30 percent could correctly identify the two Cold War military organizations, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the Warsaw Pact. Only 29 percent knew that the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave President Lyndon Johnson the authority to expand the scope of the Vietnam War.

“Since the seniors are very close to voting age or already have reached it, one can only feel alarm that they know so little about their nation’s history and express so little capacity to reflect on its meaning,” commented historian Diane Ravitch at the May 9 news conference when the results were released. Ravitch, a New York University education professor and member of the exam’s governing board, called the seniors’ scores “truly abysmal” and a cause for additional alarm with the U.S. “at war and under terrorist threat.”

“Our ability to defend—intelligently and thoughtfully—what we as a nation hold dear depends upon our knowledge and understanding of what we hold dear,” she said. “That can only be achieved though learning the history we share, and clearly, far too many high school seniors have not learned even a modest part of it.”

Better Results from Private Schools

At all three grade levels, students in private schools scored above the national average, “a pattern that is visible in achievement level data as well,” said NCES commissioner Gary Phillips.

Compared to national scores of 209, 262, and 287 for fourth-, eighth- and twelfth-graders respectively, private school students in corresponding grades scored 226, 279 and 298. While a level of proficient or above was achieved nationally by only 18 percent, 17 percent, and 11 percent of fourth-, eighth- and twelfth-graders respectively, in private schools that level of achievement was reached by 30 percent, 31 percent, and 17 percent of fourth-, eighth- and twelfth-graders.

According to Joe McTighe, executive director of the Council for American Private Education, the above-average private school scores in history and civics “show private schools are second to none in instilling democratic principles and preparing good citizens.”

One unsurprising result across all grades was that the more students were absent from school, the lower their score on the test. But surprisingly, the more students used computers in the classroom, the lower their scores also, again across all grades. Students who used a computer every day in class for history or social studies had roughly the same diminished score as students who were absent from school more than 10 days a month.

On the other hand, the more students used computers as an aid to doing specific research or in writing papers, the higher their test scores.

“The lesson here seems to be that computers should be used as an enhanced library tool, but that their use in classroom instruction for history is counterproductive,” said Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency.

For more information …

The results from the 2001 History exam and other exams given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress are available from the Web site of the National Center for Education Statistics at