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Geography, History Proficiency Levels Disappointing in U.S. Public Schools

The Washington Post reports today that the geography scores from the 2010 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) are in and the results are far from encouraging. The representative sample, which includes 7,000 fourth-graders, 9,500 eight-graders and 10,000 twelve-graders, demonstrate that students are about as proficient in geography today as they were in 1994.


The Proficient level represents solid academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter. Twenty-one percent of fourth-graders, 27 percent of eighth-graders, and 20 percent of twelfth-graders performed at or above the Proficient level on the 2010 geography assessment. At grades 4 and 8, the percentages of students at or above Proficient in 2010 were not significantly different from the percentages in 2001 and 1994. At grade 12, the percentage of students at or above Proficient was lower in 2010 than in earlier assessment years.

While the assessment deals exclusively with student achievement in one subject area, geography, the 2010 NAEP results in U.S. history and civics are equally discouraging. One reason for the stagnation, perhaps, is that the social sciences are becoming increasingly devalued in public schools.

In Massachusetts, for example, middle schools are inherently structured to help students pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) – a standardized examination that focuses exclusively on math, science and language arts. Administrators, in preparation for this grueling exam, consign teachers into teams of three to focus on these subjects. The problem, however, is that while each instructor is required by law to also incorporate social studies classes into their curriculum – there is no incentive to do so because students are not held accountable on the MCAS. Therefore, many students miss out on the opportunity to study history, geography and other important subjects on a daily basis.

The social sciences, in many ways, are an integral and necessary component of a student's education. These courses hone critical reading and writing skills that are essential in college and beyond. By emphasizing these subjects, and not rationing them, maybe educators can motivate public school students in a new way and improve what many believe is a failing system.

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