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Knowing the Past May Be History

Edited by Mrs. Paul H. Walker

The nation's students have received a dismal report card in American History. Nearly six in ten high school seniors apparently lack even a basic understanding of the subject. The conclusion is part of the most comprehensive federal survey ever made of how well students know American history. This survey was recently released by the Education Department.

The test, which was given to more than 22,000 public and private school students from around the country in 1995 showed that many of them did not know basic facts in American historym or often struggled when asked to describe their significance. Though the source is not noted, it is likely that the humorous piece to follow, entitled "Student Bloopers" is a compilation of mistakes and struggles made by students taking these comprehensive and nation-wide tests.

NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) tests are widely regarded by educators to be one of the best barometers of student achievement because they are rigorous and are administered to a nationally representative sample of students. Under a mandate from Congress, the group has been conducting periodic tests of student achievement in reading, math and science for decades.

The history test students took in 1995 was divided into two parts. There were multiple-choice questions about historical facts and open-ended questions that required students to write a few sentences and apply their reasoning skills. In that part of the test, students had to analyze historical documents, maps, and political cartoons; or reflect on excerpts from speeches or newspapers.

Students were graded on a scale from 0 to 500 and their scores were placed into one of four achievement levels--below basic, basic, proficient or advanced. Only one of every 100 high school seniors reached the advanced level. Only 10 percent of them were considered proficient in American history. Fifty-seven percent of them did not show basic understanding of the subject. Male and female scores were roughly the same in each grade. Among high school seniors, about half of the white and Asian students failed to show basic knowledge of history compared to about 80 percent of the black and Hispanic students.

Private school students scored higher than public school students, and students in the Northeast and Miswest scored better than students in the West and Southeast.

In the fall of 1995, a national panel of historians produced an extensive guide on how schools should teach American history, but that work was denounced in Congress and by many conservative political groups for allegedly putting too much emphasis on the negative aspects of American life and promoting minorities at the expense of other American heroes. The standards are now being reviewed and revamped.

Maris A. Vinovskis, a history professor at the University of Michigan, who is on a panel of educators reviewing these standards said, "Without significant improvement in how American history is taught, we will lose our past and our national identity."

Copies of the history report are available from the National Library of Education at 1-800-424-1616.

[A synopsis by the editor of an article in the Washington Post by staffwriter Rene Sanchez.]

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