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NAEP 1994 Geography Report Card:

Findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress

May 1996

Authors: Hilary R. Persky, Clyde M. Reese, Christine Y. O'Sullivan, Stephen Lazer, Jerry Moore, and Sharif Shakrani

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If policymakers, educators, and concerned citizens are to reform and improve the United States educational system, they need valid and reliable information on the strengths and weaknesses of American students and on the instructional factors that are related to differing levels of performance. For more than 25 years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has provided such information. NAEP assessments have probed students' 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, the national assessment data track trends in student performance and allow concerned readers to evaluate whether America's students have the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in today's economic and political worlds.

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

Student performance on the NAEP 1994 geography assessment is summarized on the NAEP geography scale, which ranges from 0 to 500. The geography scale allows for the discussion of what students know and can do in terms of the geography content covered by the assessment. In addition, results are reported according to geography achievement levels adopted by the National Assessment Governing Board. For each grade, three achievement levels were set -- Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. These are based on judgments, made by broadly representative panels, about what students should know and should be able to do in geography.

The Proficient achievement level represents solid academic performance that demonstrates competency over challenging subject matter for each grade assessed. The Basic achievement level denotes partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work. The Advanced achievement level signifies superior performance.

To maximize usefulness to policymakers, educators, parents, and other interested parties, the NAEP results are presented both as average scores on the NAEP geography scale, and in terms of the percentage of students attaining NAEP geography achievement levels. Thus, NAEP results not only provide information about what students know and can do, but also indicate whether their achievement meets expectations of what students should know and should be able to do. Furthermore, the descriptions of skills and abilities expected of students at each achievement level help make the reporting of assessment results more meaningful.

Major Findings for the Nation

  • The Proficient achievement level was reached by 22 percent of fourth graders, 28 percent of eighth graders, and 27 percent of twelfth graders.
  • At each grade, roughly 70 percent of students were at or above the Basic level.
  • As students' geography scores increased, the complexity and sophistication of the geographic knowledge and skills they exhibited increased. For example:
    • At grade 4, 79 percent of students could identify the water cycle from an illustration; 70 percent could draw a generally accurate map of an island from a written description; 59 percent could use a map to explain the concentration of highways in the eastern United States; and 13 percent could describe two important effects of an oil spill in the ocean.
    • At grade 8, 90 percent of students knew where to locate information in an atlas; 70 percent could understand why immigrants congregate in New York City; 48 percent could identify latitude on a polar map projection; and 36 percent could identify and explain two reasons why a particular route for a railroad would prove cheaper to construct than an alternate route.
    • At grade 12, 91 percent of students could use a map to identify an area of earthquake activity; 66 percent could construct a precipitation pie chart from tabled data; 55 percent could give at least two geographically accurate reasons that a shopping center should be placed at a given location; and 10 percent could identify Canada as the United States' largest trading partner.

  • Generally, students across grades in the higher percentiles exhibited greater abilities to work with a range of geographic tools, create maps based on tabular or narrative data, grasp processes and relationships, bring outside knowledge to bear on answering questions, and analyze data.

Major Findings for Student Subgroups

  • As in other NAEP assessments, statistically significant differences existed in the performance of major subgroups of the population. For example, at all three grades, White and Asian students had higher scores than did their Black and Hispanic counterparts. In addition, at all grades, Hispanic students had higher average scale scores than did Black students.
  • Consistent with findings in other assessments, there was a strong relationship between differing levels of parental education and performance in geography. As a general rule, the more education students' parents had received, the better they performed on the assessment.
  • On the overall geography scale, male students performed better than female students at all three grades. However, gender differences were not consistent across content areas within geography. For example, at grade 4 males outperformed females on tasks assessing the content area "Space and Place," while there were no significant performance differences in the two other content areas.
  • At all three grades, students attending nonpublic schools performed at a higher level than did those attending public schools.

Contextual Factors Related to Geography Performance

A diverse range of home and school factors are related to the ways and extent to which students learn geography. Students who participated in the NAEP assessment were asked to complete questionnaires about home and school experiences related to geography learning. Also, teachers and school administrators completed questionnaires about their students' instructional experiences. The results of these surveys help place the assessment scores into context, and allow policymakers to determine which variables are positively and negatively related to geography 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 geography assessment.
  • Fifty-six percent of fourth graders, 39 percent of eighth graders, and 31 percent of twelfth graders reported discussing their studies at home daily. By contrast, 17, 21, and 24 percent of students at grades 4, 8, and 12, respectively, reported never or hardly ever discussing their studies at home. Students who reported not discussing their studies at home performed at a lower level than did students who discussed their studies on a regular basis.
  • Geography instruction is limited for grade 4 students. More than 60 percent of students had teachers who reported spending less than 45 minutes per week on geography instruction. Most eighth-grade students reported having taken at least one geography class since the sixth grade.
  • Twenty-six percent of fourth graders, 19 percent of eighth graders, and 14 percent of twelfth graders indicated that geography was their favorite subject. At all grades, students who indicated that geography was their favorite subject performed at a higher level than did those who indicated that they liked other subjects better.

About This Report

As the nation's Report Card in geography, this document provides a broad examination of students' 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 geography, as well as the contexts in which they have developed their geographic knowledge and skills.

A limited assessment of the geography achievement of high school seniors was conducted by NAEP in conjunction with the National Geographic Society in 1988. However, the content framework that underlies the NAEP 1994 geography assessment is markedly different from the framework used for the 1984 assessment. Therefore, information cannot be reported on trends in high school seniors' geography achievement between 1988 and 1994.

Chapter 1 presents the overview of the NAEP 1994 geography assessment -- its content framework, design, and administration. Also included in Chapter 1 are sample 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' geography achievement. Chapter 5 describes the specific abilities that students demonstrated on the NAEP 1994 geography assessment and reports student performance in different content areas of geography.

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NCES 96-087 Ordering information

Last updated 23 March 2001 (RH)

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