Performance data on end-of-course tests in history and civics from 2005 to 2007 show that N.C. public schools are failing to teach students the knowledge they need to become good citizens and to participate effectively in the American political system.
The results mirror those of college students. In September 2007, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute released results from its second annual in-depth study of college student performance in U.S. history, showing that the “nation’s college freshmen and seniors again scored just over 50 percent, or an F, on a basic U.S. history exam.” Of the 50 colleges included in the study, students attending Duke University, Pfeiffer University in Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina failed, getting correct only 58.5 percent of the 60 questions. The study also reported some of the most expensive universities are among the worst performing in the country.
North Carolina versus national
Results from the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that nationally only 13 percent of 12th-grade students are at or above proficiency, slightly up from 11 percent in both 2001 and 1994. The proficient achievement level as defined by the U.S. Department of Education means students “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter.” Only one percent of students are at the advanced level, a figure that has remained static over the three time periods assessed, in 1994, 2001, and 2006. Nearly half the students scored below basic.
In North Carolina, the percentage of high school juniors overall who scored at or above level III, considered proficient, on the U.S. history end-of-course test was 56.8 percent in 2005-2006 and 64.6 percent in 2006-2007. While those figures appear to eclipse NAEP results, the N.C. end-of-course test assesses student performance against the goals for U.S. history outlined in the N.C. Standard Course of Study and those goals are not the same as those in the NAEP assessment nor are they weighted the same. Moreover, the end-of-course test in North Carolina assesses student knowledge of history only after 1789, thus omitting America’s origins and early history that many critics consider foundational.
Achievement gaps persist. Both national and N.C. assessments show that achievement by blacks falls below that of white students and Asian students. For 2006-07, only 44 percent of black students overall were proficient in U.S. history, compared to 74.4 percent for whites and 74.1 percent for Asians. Student performance increased as the level of their parents’ education increased. More than 83 percent of students whose parents held a graduate degree scored at or above proficient. These trends hold also true for college students. For college students, higher- quality family life contributed to more learning about America. Higher-quality family life meant students from homes where parents were married and lived together, where English was the primary language, and where parents had frequent conversations about current events.
A 2003 report card from the Fordham Institute highlights how despite an era of “standards-based” reform stemming from the federal No Child Left Behind act, “history is the core subject about which young Americans know the least.” They attributed this finding to mediocre standards in K-12 curriculum and the increased focus NCLB has placed on reading, math, and science performance.
The report’s authors reviewed 49 sets of K-12 academic standards for how well they met three criteria: comprehensive historical content, sequential development, and balance. Overall, North Carolina was ranked 38th out of the 49, receiving an F, and its history standards were judged as ineffective.
While North Carolina has revised its history standards since this report was first published, a review of current standards does not reflect substantive improvement. As highlighted in the 2003 report, North Carolina continues to cover broadly the origins of “self-government in British North America” and the Revolutionary War period. The 11th-grade course, the only American history survey course, begins with the 1789-1820 period.
Effective history standards, according to the Fordham Institute, are ones that “acknowledge the key issues and events that comprise the whole American story” while remaining free of presentism as well as overt and covert ideological agendas. The authors concluded that two of the most important reforms would be to teach history as a separate academic subject rather than as a component of social studies and to require teachers have a bachelor’s degree or higher in history, not in education.
North Carolina’s standards, like those of more than two-thirds of the states, promote the notion that the most important thing that students should learn from social studies is to “use their own life experiences” and an “individual and cultural identity” to solve America’s problems.
The debate over standards and the disdain for which many educators hold history is reflected in comments by a senior administrator in Durham Public Schools who said that school systems are struggling over what to teach. She said that a curriculum consultant recently told DPS administrators and teachers that much of American history is irrelevant today, advocating that they integrate a more global perspective. To illustrate history’s irrelevancy, the consultant asked them to name a single fact from U.S. history that they use every day.
The administrator also highlighted difficulties in teaching history from the “right perspective,” given the multicultural population in public schools. She related a recent incident where elementary school students visited Bennett Place in Durham, and one student got upset when she learned that her ancestors were forced to work when they were as young as 3 years old. “How do teachers deal with those realities?” she asked.
As voting records show, young people are the least-engaged in the political process. Fewer young people vote in local, state, or national elections. As both the ISI and Fordham Institute studies conclude, it is difficult for young people to participate in democratic and political processes without a comprehensive understanding of all of America’s history.
Karen McMahan is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.