Res Publica

Don't Know Much About History

by David Trumbull -- June 24, 2011

Songwriters Sam Cooke, Lou Adler and Herb Alpert, in their 1960 hit “Wonderful World,” pled ignorance of history and other academic topics. Today they’d find themselves joined by millions of American high schoolers.

On June 14th the U.S. Department of Education released results of the U.S. History 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 4, 8, and 12. The results, are not good. At 12th grade just 12% were “proficient,” representing solid academic performance. At grade 12 a student is proficient if he can “understand Missouri statehood in the context of sectionalism”—most could not.

At grade 8 the percentage at or above proficiency is 17%. For fourth graders, 20% are proficient. In other words, the longer kids stay in school the worse they do relative to how someone in their grade ought to do!

Not all of the questions are available, as many will continue to be used in tests. From among the grade 12 questions published on the Department of Education website I selected some of the more difficult to see how the pupils did.

From the list (a) Soviet Union, (b) Japan, (c) China, or (d) Vietnam, merely 22% of 12th graders correctly identified (c), China, as an ally of North Korea during the Korean War.

Just one-third of 12th graders correctly identified President George Washington’s foreign policy as “avoiding permanent alliances with other countries.” Two-thirds of the students thought Washington was an interventionist in foreign affairs.

Likewise, just one-third correctly answered that Thomas Jefferson’s election as President is sometimes called the “revolution of 1800” because it was the first “peaceful transition of power from one political party to another.” The rest thought there actually was a popular uprising in 1800, or that the Electoral College was abolished, or that it had something to do with the Louisiana Purchase.

Presented with charts showing gross domestic production increasing, unemployment declining, and wages rising during World War Two, merely 43% correctly answered that “the war caused a major increase in economic production in the United States.”

For more information on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, I suggest you go to the Department of Education website. While there you can take an online sample test and find our whether you are smarter than a 4th, 8th, or 12th grader.