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The Nation's Report Card: Geography 2001

June 2002

Authors: Andrew R. Weiss, Anthony D. Lutkus, Barbara S. Hildebrant, and Matthew S. Johnson

Executive Summary

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the nation's only ongoing representative sample survey of student achievement in core subject areas. In 2001, NAEP conducted a geography assessment of the nation's fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade students.

Authorized by Congress and administered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES in the U.S. Department of Education, NAEP regularly reports to the public on the educational progress of students in grades 4, 8, and 12. This report presents the results of the NAEP 2001 geography assessment for the nation. Results in 2001 are compared to results of the 1994 NAEP geography assessment, which was the preceding NAEP geography assessment and the only other geography assessment conducted under the current framework. Students' performance on the assessment is described in terms of average scores on a 0 -- 500 scale and in terms of the percentage of students attaining three achievement levels: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. The achievement levels are performance standards adopted by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) as part of its statutory responsibilities. They represent collective judgments of what students should know and be able to do.

As provided by law, the Deputy Commissioner of Education Statistics, upon review of a congressionally mandated evaluation of NAEP, determined that the achievement levels are to be used on a trial basis and should be interpreted with caution. However, both the Deputy Commissioner and the NAGB believe these performance standards are useful for understanding trends in student achievement. They have been widely used by national and state officials as a common yardstick of academic performance.

In addition to providing average scores and achievement-level performance in geography for the nation’s fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-graders, this report provides results for subgroups of students at those grade levels defined by various background characteristics (such as gender, race/ethnicity, region, parents’ education, etc.) and classroom contexts for learning. A summary of major findings from the 2001 NAEP geography assessment is presented on the following pages. Differences between results across years or between groups of students are discussed only if they have been determined to be statistically significant. Readers are cautioned that the relationship between a contextual variable and student performance is not necessarily causal.

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Major Findings at Grades 4, 8, and 12

  • Average geography scores for fourth- and eighth-graders were higher in 2001 than in 1994, while the performance of twelfth-graders was not significantly different.
  • At both grades 4 and 8, score increases occurred among the lower-performing students (at the 10th and 25th percentiles).
  • The 2001 geography assessment showed that 21 percent of fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders, and 25 percent of twelfth-graders performed at or above the Proficient level for their respective grades. These levels are identified by NAGB as those at which all students should perform.
  • Both grades 4 and 8 showed an increase from 1994 to 2001 in the percentage of students at or above Basic. There were no significant changes in the percentage at or above Proficient at any grade.

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Results for Student Subgroups

In addition to overall results, NAEP reports on the performance of various subgroups of students. Observed differences between student subgroups in NAEP geography performance may reflect a range of socioeconomic and educational factors not addressed in this report or by NAEP.


  • In 2001 as in 1994, male students at grades 4, 8, and 12 had higher average scores than female students.
  • There was no statistically significant change at any grade in the average scores of either male or female students between 1994 and 2001.


  • At grade 4, Black students had higher average scores in 2001 than in 1994.
  • In 2001, White, Asian/Pacific Islander and American Indian students had higher average scores than Black and Hispanic students at all three grades.
  • The 2001 results show a narrowing of the average score point difference between White students and Black students at grade 4.

Region of the Country

  • Between 1994 and 2001, the average scores of fourth-graders increased in the Northeast, and the average scores of
  • eighth-graders increased in the Southeast.
  • Fourth- and eighth-grade students in the Northeast and Central regions outperformed students in the West in 2001, and students in the Central region also outperformed their counterparts in the Southeast. Twelfth-graders in the Central region had higher average scores than twelfth-graders in the Southeast.

Parents' Highest Level of Education

  • The higher the parental education level reported, the higher the average score attained by students at both grades 8 and 12 in 2001.
  • Twelfth-graders whose parents had not graduated from high school had higher average scores in 2001 than in 1994.

Type of School

  • In 2001, nonpublic school students outperformed public school students at all three grades.
  • In 2001, Catholic school students outperformed public school students at grades 4, 8, and 12. Apparent differences between public school and other nonpublic school students were not statistically significant.
  • Eighth-grade public school students had higher average scores in 2001 than in 1994.

Type of Location

  • In 2001, students in rural and urban fringe locations had higher average scores than central city students at grades 4, 8, and 12.

Eligibility for Free/Reduced-Price School Lunch Program

  • At every grade in 2001, the average score for students who were eligible for the Free/Reduced-Price School Lunch program was lower than the average for students who were not eligible for the program (i.e., those above the poverty guidelines).

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Classroom Contexts for Learning

NAEP collects information about the contexts for student learning by administering questionnaires to assessed students, their teachers, and their school administrators. Using the student as the unit of analysis, NAEP examines the relationship between selected contextual variables drawn from these questionnaires and students’ average scores on the geography assessment.

Teacher Preparation

  • Ninety-three percent of fourth-grade students had teachers who indicated their graduate/undergraduate major or minor was elementary education, and about one-quarter (28 percent) of eighth-grade students had teachers who indicated they had a graduate/undergraduate major or minor in geography or geography education.
  • A higher percentage of fourth-grade students in 2001 had teachers who reported they were very prepared to teach geography than did students in 1994. Forty-four percent of eighth-grade students in 2001 had teachers who reported they were very prepared to teach geography.

Geography Skills Taught

  • The percentage of eighth-grade students who studied maps and globes at least once or twice a week increased in 2001 as compared to 1994.
  • There was an increase in the percentage of eighth- and twelfth-grade students who studied natural resources once or twice a week in 2001 as compared with 1994.
  • The percentages of eighth-grade students who learned about countries and cultures in their geography instruction were greater in 2001 than in 1994.

Geography Course-Taking

  • A higher percentage of eighth-graders in 2001 reported taking geography in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades than did their counterparts in 1994.
  • The percentage of twelfth-grade students taking geography courses at each grade level during their high school years increased in 2001 from the percentage reported in 1994.
  • In 2001 at grade 8, students who reported taking two or three years of geography had higher scores than those who took it for fewer years. Twelfth-graders who reported taking one year or less of geography had higher average scores than those who took 3 or 4 years of geography.

Use of Computers

  • Students at grades 4, 8, and 12 who used the Internet or CD-ROM materials to a small or moderate extent had higher scores than students who did not use these tools at all.

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Becoming a More Inclusive NAEP

In the 2001 geography assessment, the NAEP program used a split-sample design, so that trends in students' geography achievement could be reported across assessment years and, at the same time, the program could continue to examine the effects of including special-needs students assessed with accommodations. Included in this report is an overview of the second set of results that include special-needs students who required and were provided accommodations during the assessment administration.

  • In the sample where accommodations were not permitted, between 44 and 48 percent of the special-needs students at each of the three grade levels (between 5 and 8 percent of all students) were excluded from NAEP testing by their schools. In the sample where accommodations were offered, between 23 and 24 percent of the special-needs students were excluded from the assessment (between 2 and 4 percent of the total sample).
  • At grade 8, the average score when accommodations were permitted was lower than the average score when accommodations were not permitted. At grades 4 and 12, there were no statistically significant differences between the average scores of students when accommodations were permitted and when accommodations were not permitted.
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Download sections of the report (or the complete report) in a PDF file for viewing and printing:

NCES 2002-484 Ordering information

Suggested Citation
U.S. Department of Education. Office of Educational Research and Improvement. National Center for Education Statistics. The Nation's Report Card: Geography 2001, NCES 2002-484, by A. R. Weiss, A. D. Lutkus, B. S. Hildebrant, M. S. Johnson. Washington, DC: 2002.

Last updated 7 June 2002 (RH)