Recently released federal test scores from the Nation's Report Card show no improvement for eighth graders across the country in social studies knowledge, raising concerns over an uninformed future workforce.
The 2014 results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have not increased much since the test was last given to eighth graders in the country in 2010. The number of students who scored at or above proficiency in the area of US history last year was 18%, only one percentage point higher than it was in 2010. For civics, the results were the same, with 23% of students scoring at or above proficiency. Geography saw 27% of students at or above proficiency, the same result seen in 2010.
"The lack of knowledge on the part of America's students is unacceptable, and the lack of growth must be addressed," said Terry Mazany, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the NAEP and was created by Congress in 1988 to set and measure national benchmarks for student performance. "As a country, we must do better."
While students did better in US history and civics than students who took the first exam in the 1990s, geography scores have remained the same since 1994.
About 75% of eighth graders were able to use a map to locate a country on the Horn of Africa. However, only about 25% were able to complete a two-part question concerning the participation of African-Americans in the Civil War and how they affected the outcome of the war.
Less than half of students, 45%, who took the exam in 2014 were able to correctly interpret time differences when using a map with time zones. In addition, only one-third of students knew that "the government of the United States should be a democracy" is a widely held political belief in the US.
"How do we, as a nation, maintain our status in the world if future generations of Americans do not understand our nation's history, world geography or civics principles or practices?" said Michelle Herczog, president of the National Council for the Social Studies.
As was the case in 2010, Asian and white students performed better than their Hispanic and black peers. However, while Hispanic students increased their scores in US history and geography, white students made gains in US history and civics. Meanwhile, Asian and black students did not see gains in any of the three categories.
Many educators feel that topics such as social studies have gone to the wayside since the federal No Child Left Behind Act required reading and math testing for every student, writes Caroline Porter for The Wall Street Journal.
Recent years have shown an increase in math and reading scores for students. Proficiency scores in the two subjects have risen from 2011 to 2013 for eighth graders; two percentage points for math and three for reading. While NAEP did not measure math and reading scores in 2014, 36% of students tested proficient in both topics the year before.
Administered by the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, the test was taken by around 29,000 eighth-graders across the country. The test, which measures students' knowledge in social studies, uses a mix of multiple-choice questions and short essay questions. A student who has shown "competency over challenging subject matter" is deemed to be proficient.
According to Marc Tucker, president of the nonpartisan National Center on Education and the Economy, the results show just how badly the US education system is in need of an overhaul in order to allow students to compete on an international level.
"These are the kind of scores that represent what students know going into higher education and the workforce," he said. "All of this is bad news."
Michelle Herczog, president of the National Council for the Social Studies and a former teacher, agreed, saying an emphasis on the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) and an added focus on reading and math has caused social studies topics to be pushed aside.
"The scores are unfortunately evidence of what we're seeing in the field, which is a real lack of attention to social studies. STEM is not going to do any good if we don't have the glue of social studies to make responsible citizens," she said.
Mary Crovo, deputy executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which administers the test, said the results were of particular importance during a time when students are looking to make sense of current events in the world, such as the Nepal earthquake or the riots in Baltimore.
"So many of these headlines relate to the content of these U.S. history, geography and civics assessments," Crovo said. "Look at Nepal. Look at Baltimore. Look at the Supreme Court. These are all important 21st century issues — challenges that are rooted in the solid understanding of U.S. history and geography."
All the news wasn't bad. In comparison to the 2010 results, more students have moved to the "basic level" from the "below basic" level on all three subjects measured.
When asked how students learn in class, more students reported the use of computers in their history and social studies classes in 2014 than previously. Fewer reported using textbooks, while there was an increase shown in listening to online information and watching movies or videos.
However, the assessment is not meant to provide information pertaining to how students best learn or what works in classrooms.