U.S. Students Lag in Their U.S. History

This morning the 2010 NAEP results in U.S. History for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders was released. The NAEP History assessment is designed to measure their knowledge of American history in the context of democracy, culture, technology and economic changes, and America’s changing world role. Results for 2010 were compared to results in previous assessments in 1994, 2001, and 2006.  The report also examined the change in Advanced Placement U.S. History course taking between 1990 and 2009. Furthermore, the report also examines the access minority students have to AP U.S. History courses in their high schools.

Results for 4th and 8th graders showed some positive signs, but results for U.S. 12th graders were disappointing. At the 4th and 8th grade levels, low-achieving and minority students made tremendous gains over the past decade to narrow achievement gaps. However, similar results were not seen at the 12th grade level where scores from students from almost all racial/ethnic groups and at all achievement levels remained relatively unchanged over the past decade and half. However, a bright spot for our nation’s high schools is that more students, particularly minority students, have access and are taking Advanced Placement U.S. History courses to better prepare for life after high school.

Here are some of the major findings from the report:

Fourth Grade

  • Overall scores were not significantly higher in 2010 (214) compared to 2006 (211).
    • However, scores were significantly higher than in 2001 (208) and 1994 (205). 
  • Minority students made substantial gains to narrow achievement gaps.
    • Since 1994, Black and Hispanic students increased their scores by 22 points and 23 points, respectively. This represents approximately two additional years’ worth of learning.
    • Much of the increase took place since 2001, where Black scores increased by 13 points and Hispanic scores by 14.
    • Due to these gains, the Black-White and Hispanic-White gaps narrowed by 12 and 13 points, respectively.
  • The lowest-performing students made the greatest gains.
    • Since 1994, students scoring at the 10th percentile increased their scores by 22 points
    • Since 2001 these students have increased their scores by 12 points.
  • Seventy-three percent of 4th graders scored at or above NAEP’s basic level.
    • Students scoring at or above this level should be able to identify and describe a few of the most familiar people, places, events, ideas, and documents in American history.  
  • Just 20 percent scored at or above NAEP’s proficient level.
    • Students scoring at this level should be able to identify, describe, and comment on the significance of many historical people, places, ideas, events and documents.

Eighth Grade

  • Overall scores were significantly higher in 2010 (266) compared to 2006 (263) as well as compared to 1994 (259).
  • Minority students made significant gains to narrow achievement gaps with white students
    • Since 2001, Black and Hispanic students increased their scores by 10 and 12 points, respectively. This represents approximately an additional year’s worth of learning.
    • Due to these gains, the Black-White and Hispanic-White gaps narrowed by 5 and 7 points, respectively, since 2001.
  • The lowest-performing students made significant gains.
    • Since 2001, students scoring at the 10th percentile increased their scores by 11 points.
  • The percent of 8th graders scoring at or above NAEP’s basic level is increasing.
    • Since 2001, the percent of students scoring basic or above increased from 62 percent to 69 percent in 2010.
    • Students scoring at or above this level should also have a beginning understanding of the fundamental political ideas and institutions of American life and their historical origins.   
  • There was no change in the percent of 8th graders scoring at or above NAEP’s proficient level.
    • Just 17 percent of 8th graders scored at or above proficient in 2010, which is not significantly different from 2001.
    • Students at this level should be able to incorporate geographic, technological, and other considerations in their understanding of events and should have knowledge of significant political ideas and institutions.
  • The vast majority of 8th graders took U.S. History.
    • Eighty-four percent of 8th graders said they were taking U.S. history at the time of the assessment.

Twelfth Grade

  • Scores have remained relatively stagnant since 1994.
    • Scores have increased just 2 points since 1994 and did not significantly increase between 2001 and 2010.
    • Scores have remained stagnant across all achievement levels.
  • Achievement gaps remained relatively unchanged.
    • Scores for Black students have not changed significantly since 1994.
    • Scores for Hispanic students increased 8 points since 1994, but have not changed significantly between 2001 and 2010.
    • Furthermore, Black-White and Hispanic-White achievement gaps have remained relatively unchanged over the past 16 years.
  • There was no significant change in percent of 12th graders scoring at or above NAEP’s basic level.
    • Fewer than half (45 percent) of 12th graders scored at or above the basic level.
    • Students at this level they should have a sense of continuity and change in history and be able to relate relevant experience from the past to their understanding of contemporary issues.
  • There was no significant change in the percent of 12th graders scoring at or above NAEP’s proficient level.
    • Just 12 percent of 12th graders scored at or above proficient in 2010, which is not significantly different from any other previous assessment.  
    • Students at this level should be able to communicate reasoned interpretations of past events, using historical evidence effectively to support their positions.  

High School History Course Taking

  • More students took AP U.S. history in 2009 (13 percent) than in 1990 (6 percent).
    • Four times as many Hispanic students (12 percent) took the course in 2009 than in 1990 (3 percent).  
  • A greater number of minority students had access to U.S. History Advanced Placement (AP) courses in 2009 than in 1990.
    • In 1990, just 49 percent of Black students and 54 percent of Hispanic students attended a high school that offered an AP U.S. History course.
    • In 2009, the percentage increased to 83 percent and 91 percent for Black and Hispanic students, respectively.
    • On the other hand, only 75 percent of White students had access to an AP History course in 2009.
  • Students attending high-minority (defined as 50% or more of enrollment) high schools were more likely to have access to an AP U.S. History course than students attending low-minority schools.
    • While a similar number of students in low-minority (43 percent) and high-minority (42 percent) schools had access to AP U.S History in 1990, students in high minority (90 percent) high schools were more likely to have access to an AP U.S. History course than students in low-minority schools (66 percent) in 2010.

For more information on NAEP go to www.centerforpubliceducation.org and check out The proficiency debate: A guide to NAEP achievement levels.—Jim Hull