What Do Students Know about History?

American students do worse on national tests of American history than any other subject. No one knows why. But it is a fact that more than half of our high school seniors are rated "below basic" in their understanding of American history.

Since the early 1970s, the federal government has been regularly testing national samples of students to find out what they know in various school subjects. The program is called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or NAEP, pronounced "nape"), and it issues reports on reading, writing, mathematics, science, history, civics, and geography. (Reading and math are reported on a state-by-state basis, as well as nationally, but not history.)

In most of these subjects, about two-thirds of students reach the "basic" level, and a smaller proportion are rated "proficient" or "advanced." But not in American history.

U.S. history has been tested by NAEP three times: in 1994, 2001, and in 2006. In the two earlier assessments, only 43 percent of the high school seniors reached the basic level. In the latest test, whose results were released on May 16, that number rose to 47 percent.

Fortunately the number went up, not down. But it is still the case that most of the seniors who were tested scored abysmally. The federal test-makers release sample questions from the test. One of them shows a map of the early United States with a route marked on it from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast. The question asked is: "The expedition whose route is shown was undertaken to explore the: a) lands taken in the Mexico War; b) lands taken from England in the War of 1812; c) Louisiana Purchase; d) Gadsden Purchase."

A simple process of deduction would lead to the elimination of the first two answers. Since the route goes north to the Oregon Territory, (a) is not a possibility. Since the United States did not take any lands from England in the War of 1812, that eliminates (b). The student needs to have only a vague idea of Lewis and Clark's expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase to know that this is the correct answer. (The Gadsden Purchase pertained to Arizona).

Twelfth-graders were also asked to identify a significant factor that led to U.S. involvement in the Korean War and why this factor was significant.

Cynics might ask why it matters if students know anything about U.S. history. Yes, it matters. It matters because knowledge of history is the basis of political intelligence. History is not about having the "right" answers, but knowing about the issues, questions, debates, events, and ideas that affected the past.

A sage once said that the person who knows nothing of history is doomed to be an innocent, a person disconnected from the past, living in a state of social amnesia.

The idea of democracy is that the people rule. We rule by choosing our leaders. To make that choice wisely, we have to know quite a lot about what has happened in the recent past and in earlier times. The more we know, the more we force the candidates to raise the level of discussion. The less we know, the more they pander to our ignorance.

So, yes, let us be concerned so many young people leave high school, of age to cast their ballot, lacking the knowledge of history that our democracy demands of all of us.