George Marks/Getty Images
In a recent nationwide test, only 20% of 4th graders tested 'proficient' in history. (GETTY IMAGES)
In a recent nationwide test, only 20% of 4th graders tested 'proficient' in history. (GETTY IMAGES) George Marks/Getty Images
"The test called upon the students to identify at least two of the contributions to the political, economic, or social developments of the United States by such famous Americans as Lincoln, Jefferson, Jackson, and Theodore Roosevelt," an article in The New York Times reports. "Only 22 percent of American students had mastered enough history in their high school days to identify two contributions made by Lincoln to this country."
That article was published April 4, 1943. But it could have been written this week.
In fact, it was. "US Students Remain Poor At History, Tests Show," read a Times headline on June 14. The news: a recent federal test revealed only 20 percent of fourth graders were "proficient" in history. They could identify Abraham Lincoln, for example, but less than half could identify why he was important.
But it's true what they say. History repeats itself.
2002? "Students, Especially 12th Graders, Do Poorly on History Tests."
1995? "Most 12th Graders Know Little American History, Survey Says."
"We have to temper our alarm," education historian Diane Ravitch tells Weekend All Things Considered host Laura Sullivan. "And realize we're not a very historically minded country."
You can say that again. Newspapers do — every 10 years or so.
In 1985: "The Decline And Fall of Teaching History."
In 1976: "Times Test of College Freshman Shows Knowledge of American History Limited."
In 1955: "Students Reveal Ignorance of US."
Ravitch herself wrote the 1985 account, in which she argued, as she still does today, that there was never a golden age of historical literacy.
"We've been lamenting the state of history since 1943," she says, "and maybe even longer."
A Myth of Decline
Yes, Ravitch says, history is important. And yes, we need to figure out how to keep students engaged. But students also face rote textbooks and a system dominated by multiple-choice testing that encourages "teaching to the test" instead of deeper, contextual learning. Then there's the challenge that many students — particularly 12th graders, 12 percent of whom tested 'proficient' — don't really care about the test.
"They know that it doesn't count," Ravitch says. "It won't help them get into college, it won't help them get into high school. They're wise enough to realize it doesn't matter, and they're so incentivized to say, 'This test matters; this test doesn't.'"
Historically, American students have done poorly not just on national aptitude tests, but on international tests as well. In the 1960s, America placed dead last in a test of science and math skills in 12 different countries.
And yet, Ravitch says, similar studies today are greeted with alarm, as if America is slipping from a past perch.
"The last one came out this past December, and we placed in about the middle," she says. "The response was gloom and doom."
Results of that test, the Program for International Student Assessment, were called a "wake up call" by Education Secretary Arne Duncan. President Obama called it a "Sputnik moment."
"What they didn't seem to realize was we've never been first in the world in math and science," Ravitch says. 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."
Turning the Tables
Still, in a few years, a new national aptitude test might prove more difficult for history teachers than for the students they teach.
In 2014, the National Assessment of Educational Progress — the same organization that conducted this year's nationwide history test — will issue a brand new technology and engineering test to students.
"They've had it in art, music, English language arts, mathematics and history. And everyone said — what about technological literacy and engineering?" Steven Schneider explains.
Schneider is the senior program director for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics at WestEd, a San Francisco-based research and development company preparing the framework for the new test.
"We're into the 21st century, and there's a large global demand for our students to be able to compete in these areas," Schneider says.
For an indication of what that test will look like, NPR asked WestEd to draw up some sample questions from its existing framework. Here's what they sent us:
Describe which parts of of a residential wind turbine would require the most maintenance.
Trace the evolution of features on early cell phones compared to current smart phones.
Explain two ways in which personal communication devices can work together for a team to achieve its project goal.
What might the effect be of allowing personal communication devices to be used in school?
Describe a set of troubleshooting steps that would be appropriate for analyzing a problem with a printer.
To find out how an adult today — say, a history teacher — might do on those questions, host Laura Sullivan called up her high school history teacher, Mrs. Clark, who she remembered for the narrative arc of her lessons.
"I think a lot of being a history teacher is being really in love with the subject matter, and also getting it that although you're teaching history, you're teaching kids," Clark says.
That's why a narrative makes all the difference when you're trying to keep students engaged, she says.
But how would she troubleshoot a printer?
"Ugh!" Clark groans. "Call in the tech guy!"
How about the difference between early cell phones and modern smart phones?
"Believe it or not, I've only had a cell phone for the last year and half," she says. "But I know they were just about making phone calls in the past, and now they've got full-on computers in them."
Which raises a final question: Testing students' ability to analyze search engine results, WestEd says, is included in its framework of the new techno-literacy test. If every student has computers in their pockets, do they need to learn historical facts — or only how to look them up?
"I don't believe there's any part of our curriculum that is not important to have a well-rounded student." Schneider says, noting that more and more schools emphasize interdisciplinary education methods. "We hope that these kinds of things are being taught in schools — that we move more toward our students being able to solve problems, to troubleshoot, to do collaborative activities."
"I think with history, what matters is not finding facts but having context," Ravitch, the education historian, says. "When election season comes up, we'll have candidates making claims about what happened in the past and why you should elect them because there is some historical precedent for whatever they're trying to do. How can you evaluate their claims if you don't know any history?"
"Whether they're talking about Paul Revere or World War One or the civil rights movement, you have to have a context," Ravitch says. "That's why we can't just laugh it off and say, 'We've never known anything about history, so let's forget about it.' We can't forget about it."