NAEP Geography: But what about the whole country?

Mike isn’t wrong
when he notes with satisfaction that, on some indicators and at some grade
levels, poor and minority students in the U.S. are doing better today than they were a
decade or so back. Only a churl would say that’s not an accomplishment worthy
of notice—and some pride.

glass half empty photo

This glass is barely one-third full
(Photo by Lihn Tihn)

But the big, glum
headline over American K-12 education today is essentially the same as when we
were declared a “nation at risk” twenty-eight long years ago: Our kids on
average are woefully lacking in essential skills and knowledge across every
subject in the curriculum.

Almost all the
major trend lines are flat—at least until you decompose them by ethnicity.
Sure, it’s great that minority students have made gains, but what does that do
for our international competitiveness if the average score is unchanged or
declining? Especially in a time when many competitor nations are moving up on
some of those same metrics? And what’s the long-term payoff from early-grade
gains if scores and outcomes in high school are flat or declining? Some say the
early gains are like the pig in the python’s throat and it’ll just take time
for them to reach the tail. But we’ve had enough experience by now with
early-grade gains and high school sags to throw major doubt on that hypothesis.
We simply haven’t found—at least on a large scale—ways to sustain and build on
academic gains as youngsters move from fourth grade to twelfth. (Mike wiggles
out of this by blaming twelfth graders for not taking NAEP seriously; that may
be partly true, but isn’t any truer today than in earlier years.)

This week’s NAEP geography results (based on 2010 testing) underscore
the problem. Indeed, the National Assessment Governing Board’s own headline
says it all: “Proficiency overall remains low; lowest performers show greatest
improvement; grade 8 remains flat; grade 4 increases, while grade 12 declines
since 1994.”

Geography, as we
know, isn’t much taught in U.S. schools, a crime in its own right. But that’s
not the only reason our kids don’t know much about it, because the geography
results parallel recent NAEP results in civics and U.S. history, both of which are taught, at least in our high
schools. Yet here’s how many of our twelfth graders are at (or above) NAEP’s “proficient”
level in those three subjects:

  • Geography: 20 percent (down from 24 percent in 2001)
  • U.S. History: 12 percent (level since 2006)
  • Civics: 24 percent (down from 27 percent in 2006)

It takes chutzpah
to say this glass is even one-third full, much less that it’s filling. And only
a naïf would say that we’re looking toward a bright future as a self-governing
polity comprised of knowledgeable voters and discerning citizens if we’re
producing high school graduates who know this little about their world and
their country.

Critics retort that Americans—including adults—have never
known much of this sort of stuff but we’ve gotten by OK over the years as the
land of the free and the home of the brave, so not to worry. Well, I worry—and
so should you. I look at the lousy choices we’re making at the voting booth and
in statehouses, school boards, and the U.S. Capitol itself, and I see plenty to
worry about in this realm. I see colleges adding little or nothing to what
young people know in these subjects. Then I see what’s on TV (and what
passes for “news” and “analysis” these days on the internet and in the
theaters) and I do not conclude that our national prospects are improving.

The schools, of
course, are not entirely, not even primarily, to blame for this situation.
Recent immigration patterns, for example, have flooded classrooms with foreign-born
kids who arrive with scant knowledge of America and must first struggle with
the language of the curriculum. But we’ve had immigrants before, lots of them
even. So that ought not be an excuse for long. And we do need to understand
that some of our education priorities aren’t helping at all. Why teach history
or geography, for example, if all that your school is held accountable for are
reading and math scores? Why do your homework for subjects that don’t really
count? Why fuss about whether state requirements for licensing “social studies”
teachers are light on history and oblivious to geography?

Mike can crack
open the champagne if he is so inclined. But don’t pour me more than a thimble

This piece originally
(in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s
Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper,

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.