An article in the May 10 Washington Post, titled “Study: History
Still a Mystery to Many Students,” detailed the findings of the National
Assessment of Educational Progress concerning a history test taken by
29,000 students in grades 4, 8, and 12.
A third of the students in the lower grade levels and half of the
seniors scored below the basic level of proficiency on the test. Tom
Brokaw on the evening news also reported the test results, emphasizing
that the scores showed American students fail to demonstrate a basic
understanding of history. The students were criticized for their failure
to correctly answer questions such as: What type of organization is NATO?
The test administrators further stated that these questions represent the
basic history a person needs to function as an intelligent citizen in
The test had previously been administered in 1994 and a concerted
effort was made to bolster history instruction, but the scores remained
virtually unchanged over a seven-year time span. I guess we, the public,
should be saying, “What’s wrong with the American education system?”
The Washington Post article also mentioned that the history scores were
similar to the disappointing NAEP math and science test results, also
released during the past year.
Before you jump on the “bash American education” bandwagon, read
the test questions — then ask yourself what percentage of the questions
should be correctly answered. One member of the Assessment Board expressed
alarm because many of the high-school seniors are very close to voting
age. I assume she believes there is some correlation between history
knowledge and proper selection of a candidate. But I doubt if
adult-voting-age-population scores would be significantly different from
those reported for high-school students. One only needs to watch the
Tonight Show as Jay Leno asks basic questions of the general public. The
lack of answers or the answers given are often funny and can be
disturbing. Would you be willing to give up your right to vote if
you couldn’t answer 75 percent of the questions on a given test? What
about the requirement of having to go to summer school if you don’t meet
the desired proficiency level in any of the subjects?
At this point you should be getting concerned that the legislature
might pass a law requiring re-testing of all adults at various intervals
after high-school graduation. Failure to pass the test could revoke your
voting or employment rights. The process is already in place for renewing
your driver’s license under certain circumstances. What’s that? You
say you already know enough to intelligently select a candidate and that
all that academic stuff is unnecessary because you always vote republican?
I attended a recent get-together where several adults sitting around a
table began discussing the various testing programs now used in public
schools. During the conversation someone asked who was the candidate who
ran against Governor Mark Warner. No one knew! Some remembered their names
were the same and thought it was another Warner. After considerable
thought we finally sought help from another table where one person knew
the answer — Mark Earley. Our table received some credit for knowing the
candidates shared a name, and we were allowed to remain at the party. How
quickly the human mind forgets facts that are not useful. I guess we
needed more drill and practice during the election process. Another $10
million in TV commercials would probably have helped.
What most of our erudite educators fail to realize is that society
consists of individuals who form a collective body of knowledge and
thought. Each individual student may have failed to answer all the
questions, but the students collectively accomplished the task, an
important point overlooked by most test experts.
Living is a team effort, with each of us contributing some knowledge to
the process. No one person knows everything. Our individual brains are
filled with different amounts and kinds of knowledge. The brain is
analogous to a book and society to a library where all the books are
stored. The old books are constantly being replaced as new books are
created. It’s important that the new books contain new information and
are not just reprints of the older texts.
If I were a student in today’s school environment I’d be rather
discouraged. Our youth are constantly cast in a negative light. How could
they possibly think of themselves as worthy individuals or citizens?
It’s time for society to say “enough” to all the testing. Certainly,
we need some evaluation markers and those should be carefully designed to
monitor and provide constructive feedback. The existing system has no
design or purpose. Tests are being used politically, to promote a
subject’s importance. Proponents of every subject want their subject to
be at the top of the hierarchy ladder, and by showing that kids don’t
know the material, these proponents hope to gain more resources and
importance for their fields of study.
John Patrick, head of the Social Studies Development Center at the
University of Indiana, said, “That’s awful,” when commenting on the
scores. His solution to the problem was more time on the subject of
history. I believe that’s the same “more-time-on-task” solution
found in the recommendations for science, math, foreign language, and
every other subject that has administered a test. Our kids still have only
24 hours in a day and I would like for them to have some time available
for other important things, like visiting grandma and grandpa without
bringing schoolbooks. We also have some important facts to teach our
In our January issue we asked our readers to
nominate their best teachers for our teacher honor roll, and the
mail came pouring in! We will publish a few each month until we
have acknowledged all of our fine educators.
Richard W. Young
Teacher’s Name: Freeman DeBarr
School System: Upshur County, WV
Primary Subject: 6th & 7th Grade
A kind and
compassionate man, he often overlooked my
shortcomings. He encouraged me to learn and
succeed. He praised my work and made me feel
Teacher’s Name: John Suren
School System: Prince William County Public
Primary Subject: 8th grade Health and P.E.
Coach Suren showed
genuine concern and interest in me as a young
person, which made me believe I could achieve and
become the best in anything that I pursued.
Because of his positive influence and guidance in
my life, I believe I am a better person. Today, in
my role as a high school assistant principal, I
try to lead and teach others with the same caring
attitude he displayed with me as a young man.