Assessment shows history deficit in nation’s classrooms looms large; so does illiteracy. Is there a causal relationship?

WASHINGTON, DC, Apr 29 — What happened? Six years ago, the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP] revealed an impressive improvement in knowledge about American History, among elementary and middle-school students, but now, the 2018 tests–released last week—reveal that the apparent gain has slid to 1994 levels.

The Nation’s Report Card, as the assessment is known, shows that eighth graders’ awareness of key data crashed; between 2014 and 2018 their scores fell four points–from 267 to 263–out of a maximum 500.

“Considering the fact that 2014’s report seemed to offer hope, and the trajectory was rising, the four-point decrease was a surprise,” according to education advocate, David Bruce Smith.

Coincidentally, too many children — typically in grades 4 through 12 — are essentially illiterate; –enough to be a cause for alarm; it might be part of the reason for the decline. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education says “19 percent of high school graduates are functionally illiterate, which means they can’t read well enough to manage daily living and perform tasks required.”

“There seems to be a correlation between historical proficiency, and an over-the-top illiteracy rate. You absorb history mostly by reading, but if you have been lost in the System, it’s nearly impossible to learn the essentials about the past or the present.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued a statement after NAEP’s results were announced. As she put it: “America’s antiquated approach to education is creating a generation of future leaders who will not have a foundational understanding of what makes this country exceptional. We cannot continue to excuse this problem away. Instead, we need to fundamentally rethink education in America. It is the only way our students will be able to lead our nation and the world.

“The results are stark and inexcusable. A quarter or more of America’s 8th graders are what NAEP defines as ‘below basic’ in U.S. history, civics and geography. In the real world, this means students don’t know what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about, nor can they discuss the significance of the Bill of Rights or point out basic locations on a map. And only 15% of them have a reasonable knowledge of U.S. history. All Americans should take a moment to think about the concerning implications for the future of our country,” DeVos said.

Smith is co-founder of the Grateful American Book Prize, with the late Dr. Bruce Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was created to restore enthusiasm about American history– for kids and adults.

“Our goal has been to entice students to learn about the events and people who have shaped the nation; the best way, outside of a really competent teacher, is to energize authors to think up–captivating fiction and non-fiction–that appeals to adolescents, and stimulates commitments from publishers,” said Smith.

Published on April 28, 2020

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