Food For Thought

Our Kids Flunked Again

by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini

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 today’s society.

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.

What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.

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 grandchildren.

Teacher Honor Roll

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.

Nominator: 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 special.


Nominator: Steve Webb
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.



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