Ignorance of history reason for concern

The Education Beat

Testing: More than half of high school seniors scored below the "basic" level of knowledge in history in the most recent national assessment.

May 12, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

FOURTH — IT TOOK education historian Diane Ravitch to put the latest U.S. history test results, released this month, in perspective.

Fourth- and eighth-graders nationally showed some competence in the 2001 test, Ravitch noted. But what about high school seniors, the students closest to voting age? They "registered truly abysmal scores, and showed no improvement since the [National Assessment of Educational Progress] history assessment was last given in 1994," Ravitch said.

"One can only feel alarm that they know so little about their nation's history and express so little capacity to reflect on its meaning."

How bad is it? In no other subject assessed by NAEP, including math and reading, do more than half of high school seniors register below basic, an achievement level that denotes only partial mastery of significant historical knowledge. Even in science, in which American 12th-graders are far from Einsteins, 47 percent scored below basic in the latest NAEP tests. In history, 57 percent fell below basic.

Of course, we didn't need a national test for this news. Talk-show humorist Jay Leno occasionally visits college campuses, where students are eager to demonstrate their ignorance of history for all the world to see, or that part of the world watching NBC.

For Ravitch, the results were heartbreaking. Before Sept. 11, she said, "the case for history seemed somehow abstract." But after she watched the terrorist attacks from the Brooklyn waterfront near her home, she realized again "that our ability to survive as a nation depends on our belief in our purposes as a nation, and this can only come from the knowledge about ourselves that the study of U.S. history provides."

And so much of what we see and hear each day -- news from the Middle East, for example -- "is a product of history, and to understand it, we need a firm background knowledge of history," said Ravitch."

Here's a sample grade 12 question:

The Progressive movement of 1890-1920 is best described as:

A. a broad-based reform movement that tried to reduce the abuses that had come with modernization and industrialization.

B. a loose coalition of groups primarily dedicated to passing a constitutional amendment prohibiting the consumption of alcohol.

C. an anti-tariff movement led by a federation of business owners and manufacturers who wanted to promote trade abroad.

D. a grass-roots movement that attempted to gather support for the establishment of an international organization such as the League of Nations.

If you chose A, join the 36 percent of 17-year-olds who answered the question correctly. That's right, just a tad more than a third.

Montgomery pupils score success on basic skills tests

Montgomery officials, including County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, paid a surprise visit to Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring last week to announce the district's scores in this year's Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills. The school was chosen because it is succeeding academically despite high poverty and a large enrollment of kids for whom English is a second language.

And Montgomery County kids did well generally on the CTBS, performing at or above last year's results in reading, mathematics and language.

Next door, in Prince George's County, Superintendent Iris T. Metts enjoyed a rare opportunity a few days earlier to brag about similarly stellar CTBS results. Maybe it is something in the water -- or maybe it is the full stomachs of top officials and school board members.

The Prince George's Journal reported last week that the county has been paying as much as $435 to provide sit-down pre-meeting dinners for Metts, her top staff and board members. Given the relationship of Metts and her board, we'll bet they sit at separate tables.

At state's schools, donation was music to their ears

PRS Guitars Ltd. of Stevensville gave a guitar Friday to all 208 public high schools in Maryland. The donation, valued at $100,000, was announced by Paul Reed Smith, founder and managing general partner of the company.

Healthy vocabulary of high school grads

Wednesday's Education Beat column described The American Heritage Dictionary's list of "100 words that all high school graduates -- and their parents -- should know." Several readers asked how they could view the complete list.

It is available at www. houghtonmifflinbooks.com.

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