Wednesday, June 15, 2011

History is so ... Past

Some patriotic Americans are, at least for the next day or so, going to be completely outraged over the news that American students' lowest scores on the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) are in history - with fewer than 15% of seniors proficient. Certainly, these numbers are sad, disappointing, even pathetic. But, like all research, the numbers need a bit of qualification and perspective.

I continue to challenge the emphasis of judging our schools and society by arbitrary standardized tests in which the students have no stake - keep in mind that NAEP tests are voluntary, students are asked to miss class to take them, and many students don't even bother to finish. Thus, the top students are often not taking the test - and that may be because, at the high school level, they are busy in their AP Comparative Government, US History, Comparative Government, and European History. These classes are incredibly rigorous, and the numbers of students in them grow each year.

Secondly, history is an incredibly vast subject - especially at the lower levels - where the entire history of the world is covered over the years with great debate over what should be taught. I'd also argue there is a literacy issue, as social studies textbooks are among the most convoluted and poorly written of the content area books. Students are often (way too often) not taught the skills of accessing the knowledge of history, but instead lectured on vast amounts of content which is often out of context for them. And the idea of "history" versus the concepts of "social studies" are at odds for time. Beyond that, few state tests even evaluate social studies, so there is even less incentive for kids to retain the knowledge.

Don't get me wrong - I am truly saddened by the numbers. But I don't see it as the end of American civilization .... or history.

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