Debate Magazine

U.S. Kids Flunk Another History Exam

By Stevemiranda

There was a great story on NPR today about one of my favorite topics. Every so often, a study is released by some organization that illustrates how school poorly children are doing at learning academic material. There is typically shock and indignation, then a pledge from a high-ranking government official to rededicate ourselves to improving our schools.

This week the New York Times reported that, on an exam called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, most of the nation flunked the history section: “Over all, 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency on the exam.”

Recently, American students placed in the middle of the pack of an international exam called the Program for International Student Assessment. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called it “a wake up call.”

From the NPR story:

“What they didn’t seem to realize was we’ve never been first in the world in math and science,” says education historian Diane Ravitch. Since the ’70s, the U.S. has typically placed in the bottom quartile in worldwide math and science rankings.

“We have the biggest economy in the world, the most productive workers, the most inventors, the most patents, the greatest universities. How could all of this success have come from kids who were in the bottom quartile in the international assessments?” Ravitch asks. “It suggests to me that there’s no connection.”

Of course there is no connection. The things we require students to do and learn in school have very little correlation with what happens after they leave school. That’s not new information, nor is it a big secret. When I taught in a big traditional school, I would hear countless parents over the years tell their kids, “Look, school is game. You have to play the game.”

* * *

Here’s a test question to ponder:

I)   What is the most important thing for students to know about history upon graduation?

  1. the name of the president during the War of 1812
  2. the significance of the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act of 1930
  3. the name of the battle that turned the tide of the Civil War
  4. that learning about history can be both interesting and useful

We spend a disproportionate amount time, effort, and money focusing on answers 1, 2, and 3, which undermines our ability to help students see the value of answer 4. That’s why focusing on improving students’ test scores in history is the wrong goal.

The results of these tests are not a “wake-up call.” We don’t need to improve our schools. We don’t need to get better at doing the wrong thing. We need to re-invent schools with a focus on a different set of priorities.

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