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NAEP 1994 U.S. History Report Card:

Findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress

April 1996

Authors: Alexandra S. Beatty, Clyde M. Reese, Hilary R. Persky, and Peggy Carr

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If policymakers, educators, and concerned citizens are to improve the United States educational system, they need valid and reliable information about the strengths and weaknesses of American students and the instructional factors that are related to differing levels of performance. For over twenty-five years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has provided such information. NAEP assessments have probed student abilities in a variety of subject areas, reporting both on what students know and can do and on the relationships between instructional, institutional, and background variables and differing levels of educational achievement. As the nation's foremost ongoing education survey, NAEP results track trends in student performance and allow concerned readers to evaluate whether America's children are developing the skills and knowledge essential for effective participation in the economy and the polity.

In 1994, NAEP conducted national assessments in reading, geography, and United States history at grades 4, 8, and 12. The United States history results included in this Report Card describe students' achievement at each grade and within various subgroups of the general population. In addition, the report discusses the relationships between student performance and instructional and home background variables. Taken together, this information gives educators a context for evaluating the U.S. history achievement of students, and results that may be used to guide reform efforts.

Student performance is summarized on the NAEP U.S. history scale, which ranges from 0 to 500. In addition, results for each grade are reported according to three achievement levels: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. These achievement levels are based on collective judgments about what students should know and be able to do in U.S. history. The Basic level denotes partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade. The Proficient level represents solid academic performance and demonstrated competence over challenging subject matter. The Advanced level signifies superior performance.

Major Findings for the Nation

  • The Proficient achievement level -- defined as signifying solid academic performance and demonstrated competence over challenging subject matter -- was reached by only 17 percent of fourth graders, 14 percent of eighth graders, and 11 percent of twelfth graders.
  • Fewer than half the grade 12 students in the assessment were able to reach the Basic level. At grades 4 and 8, over 60 percent of assessed students demonstrated this level of performance.
  • On individual assessment tasks, students demonstrated a range of competencies. For example:
    • At grade 4, 87 percent of assessed students identified Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have A Dream" speech; 45 percent identified the primary purpose of the Bill of Rights; 32 percent knew that New York was one of the colonies that took part in the American Revolution; and 11 percent described some ways in which women's roles in the workforce have changed over the past 100 years.
    • At grade 8, 80 percent of the students knew that the song "O Freedom" was used by people in the Civil Rights movement; 71 percent identified Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence; 41 percent associated the Lend-Lease Act, the Yalta Conference, and the dropping of the atomic bomb with the Second World War; and 10 percent wrote a description of the debate at the Constitutional Convention that led to the Connecticut Compromise.
    • At grade 12, 74 percent of the students determined the impact of the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite on United States politics; 41 percent identified the purpose of the Monroe Doctrine; 29 percent explained the effect of an economic or technological change on the nature of farming in America; and 22 percent successfully compared Franklin Roosevelt's 1933 and 1937 inauguration speeches.

Major Findings for Student Subgroups

  • As has been the case in other NAEP assessments, there were statistically significant differences in the performance of major subgroups of the population. For example, at all grades White and Asian students had higher scores than did their Black and Hispanic counterparts.
  • Consistent with findings in other assessments, there was a strong relationship between differing levels of parental education and performance on the NAEP U.S. history assessment. As a general rule, the more education students' parents had received, the better the students performed on the assessment.
  • On the overall U.S. history scale, there were no statistically significant performance differences between male and female students at grades 4 and 8. At grade 12, male students performed at a higher level than females. However, gender differences were not consistent across areas of U.S. history. At all grades, males outperformed females on tasks assessing the historical theme of "The Changing Role of America in the World." On the other hand, eighth- and twelfth-grade females performed better than their male counterparts on the "Gathering and Interaction of Peoples, Cultures, and Ideas" theme.
  • At all three grades, students attending nonpublic schools performed at a higher level than did students attending public schools.

Contextual Factors Related to United States History Performance

A diverse range of home and school factors influence the ways and extent to which students learn history. Students who participated in the NAEP assessment were asked to complete questionnaires about their home and school experiences related to history learning. Also, questionnaires about students' instructional experiences were completed by their teachers. The results of these surveys help provide a context for interpreting the assessment scores, and provide policymakers with information about variables that are positively and negatively related to history achievement.

  • Over 40 percent of the students at grades 4 and 8 and 25 percent of the students at grade 12 reported watching four or more hours of television each day. In most cases, the more television students reported watching the worse they performed on the U.S. history assessment.
  • Fifty-four percent of the fourth graders, 38 percent of the eighth graders, and 31 percent of the twelfth graders reported discussing their studies at home daily. By contrast, 18, 22, and 25 percent of the students at each grade respectively reported never or hardly ever discussing their studies. Students who reported no regular discussions had lower average scale scores than all other students.
  • United States history instruction was limited for grade 4 students. Only 7 percent of the fourth graders assessed had teachers who reported that U.S. history is the focus of their social studies teaching. Conversely, most students in grade 8 were taking a course in U.S. history, and most twelfth graders had taken such a course in grade 11.
  • History homework was also limited at grade 8. Forty-eight percent of students who were taking U.S. history reported that they did one-half hour or less of history homework each week. These students had lower scores on the assessment than did students who did one or two hours of homework each week.
  • Almost half the students had teachers who reported using textbooks on a daily basis. Also, 62 percent of the students at grade 4 and 23 percent of the students at grade 8 had teachers who reported that they never or hardly ever use primary documents in their teaching.

About This Report

As the Nation's Report Card in United States history, this document provides a broad examination of history learning. In addition, specific aspects of students' performance and their experiences at home and school are reviewed in some depth. As such, this report provides a portrait of what students know and can do in history, as well as the contexts in which they have developed their history knowledge and skills.

Chapter 1 presents the overview of the NAEP 1994 U.S. history assessment -- its content framework, design, and administration. Also included in Chapter 1 are example questions and student responses from the assessment. Chapter 2 provides overall average scale score results for the nation, regions, and subgroups of students. Chapter 3 describes student performance in terms of achievement levels. Chapter 4 describes contextual factors related to students' performance. Finally, Chapter 5 describes the specific abilities demonstrated by students in the NAEP 1994 U.S. history assessment and reports student performance in different thematic areas of U.S. history.

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NCES 96-085 Ordering information

Last updated 23 March 2001 (RH)

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