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1994 NAEP Assessment in Geography

Vol. 1, No. 4, December 1995

NCES 96-810 Ordering Information

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the only nationwide assessment currently used that is designed to monitor students' performance in specific subjects such as reading, writing, mathematics, science, U.S. history, and geography. In early 1994, about 19,000 students in grades 4, 8, and 12 across the nation participated in the NAEP assessment in geography. This was the first comprehensive geography assessment conducted by NAEP and will provide baseline data to measure future progress. To provide a context for understanding the assessment, the Focus on NAEP series presents an overview of the framework on which the geography assessment was based. Sample questions from the 1994 assessment are also presented. The NAEP geography scores are reported on a scale that ranges from 0 to 500. Results are also reported according to geography achievement levels-basic, proficient, and advanced.

The framework that guides the assessment was developed by the National Assessment Governing Board through a year-long national consensus process involving teachers, curriculum coordinators, leading geographic educators, academic geographers, assessment experts, and the general public./1

The 1994 NAEP geography framework requires students not only to demonstrate factual knowledge but also to think critically about geographic issues, and actively apply the knowledge and skills of geography to complex problems of our society. Applying knowledge and skills to new and challenging tasks is important as the world becomes more connected through technological advancement and shared concerns about political, economic, social, and environmental issues.

Key Features

The NAEP geography assessment includes


The 1994 geography assessment framework defines two dimensions for the assessment. These are summarized in table 1.

Table 1.-Dimensions of the 1994 NAEP geography assessment
Cognitive                           Content Dimension
Dimension       Space and Place         Environment and Society         Spatial Dynamics and Connections

Knowing       Where is the world's     What mineral resources are     What factors stimulate human
              largest rain forest?     often extracted by  strip      migrations?

Understanding Why are tropical rain    Explain the effects of strip   Explain the motivations of modern day
              forests located near     mining and shaft mining on the Mexican and Cubans for immigrating to
              the equator?             landscape.                     the United States?

Applying*     Support the conclusion   How can both economic and      Compare current settlement and
              that tropical rain       environment interests be       employment patterns of Cuban and
              forests promote wide     reconciled in an area of strip Mexican immigrants in the United
              species variation.       mining?                        States.
Applying=a range of higher order thinking skills
Note:  Example questions in the matrix cells are illustrative only and are not meant to represent the full
array of assessment objectives.
Source: Geography Assessment Framework for the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress (Washington,
D.C.: National Assessment Governing Board, U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Government Printing Office).

Content Dimension

Three broad areas make up the content dimension of the geography assessment. These content areas are represented in table 1 as Space and Place, Environment and Society, and Spatial Dynamics and Connections.

Space and Place

The study of Space and Place refers to knowledge and understanding of geography as it relates to particular places on Earth, to spatial patterns on the Earth's surface, and to physical and human processes that shape these patterns. Topics falling within this content area are decribed in table 2.

Table 2.-Topics within Space and Place
Fundamental place location                              Fundamental Physical geography
  Physical features and patterns of the physical          Major spatial features and patterns in the natural
  environment such as major landforms, bodies of          environment such as those relating to climate, oceans
  water, climate, and vegetation regions                  soils, landforms, and vegetation

  Features and patterns of the human environment such     Major processes, such as atmospheric circulation
  as urban centers, farming regions, and political        weathering and erosion, ocean currents, plate
  divisions                                               tectonics, and vulcanism that shape patterns in the
                                                          natural environment

 Fundamental geographic concepts and methods
   Concepts such as absolute and relative location,     Fundamental human geography
   proximity, separation, direction, region, hierarchy,   Major spatial features and patterns in the cultural
   density, dispersion, and methods that are used to      environment such as language, religion, agriculture,
   describe and analyze spatial patterns                  and economic, political, and demograophic regions

   Basic spatial units of measurement such as distance    Major processes, such as settlement, migration, trade,
   and area                                               technological development, diffusion, and landscape
                                                          transformation that shape cultural patterns

   Absolute location systems such as latitude-longitude
   and alpha-numeric grids, and relative location terms

Sample Question A (Space and Place)

Grade 4. On the map below, write the names of the North Pole, the South Pole, and the Equator in the correct location. (The actual map is large enough to write on).

Scoring Guide

Scoring rationale: Student locates and correctly labels the North Pole, South Pole, and the Equator on a map showing the Western Hemisphere.

3-Complete. The response correctly labels all three features on the map. (54.2 percent correct; standard error 1.5)

2-Partial. The response correctly identifies the location of one or two features on the map. (26 percent correct; standard error 1.2)

1-Inappropriate. The response does not correctly locate any of the three features. (7.2 percent correct; standard error 0.7)

Sample Question B (Space and place)

Grade 12. Under which of the following circumstances would you be most likely to find snow in equatorial regions?

A. In areas below sea level

B. In areas at high latitudes

*C. In areas at high elevations

D. In winter

*Key: C. (67.5 percent correct; standard error 1.3)

Environment and Society

Environment and Society focuses on relationships between the natural world and the people who inhabit it. Through knowledge of environment-society interactions, geography helps students learn how people depend upon, adapt to, are affected by, and modify the natural environment. Many modifications, such as planting trees to reduce erosion from winds, may have positive consequences. Other modifications, such as locating a landfill over a ground water source, may have negative consequences. The continually developing force of technology requires that society give even greater attention to the results and potential outcomes of environment-society interactions. Topics falling within this content area are described in table 3.

Table 3.-Topics within Environment and Society
Unity                                                    Positive and negative consequences of human
    Interaction among Earth's natural systems such       changes to the environment such as over-grazing
    as the hydrosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and      and plowing arid land that may temporily increase
    atmosphere                                           food production but, over time, contribute to
   Interactions among Earth's human systems
   such as urban, agricultural, political, economic      Human systems affected by the characteristics of
   and transportation sytems                             natural systems such as weather, plate tectonics, and
   Interactions among natural and human systems
   such as a forest and a recreation area

   Changes in one system that lead to changes          Implications of technology
   within the system and in other systems such as        Uses of technology that result in changes to the
   impact of El Nino on commercial fishing or            environment both intended and unintended.
   the effects of drought on forest fires                Transporting oil or chemicals by ship or rail for    
                                                         example, can harm the environment if an accident
   Changes in a system that impact locally               occurs
   regionally, and/or globally such as the erruption
   of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines and its          Positive and negative consequences of the uses of
   effect on the world's climate                         technology on the environment and society, such as
                                                         automobiles enhancing human mobility but car
Limits                                                   exhaust decreasing air quality
   The environment's limits in absorbing the
   impact of human activity such as the impact      
   of the imported Mediterranean fruit flies on        Perspectives
   California's produce production or                    Peoples differing perceptions of the same
   over-hunting on the elephant population and           environment based on their experiences and interests
   tourism industry of Kenya                             (For example, a developer and an environmentalist
                                                         may view the use of forest land at the edge of a city
   Human adaptations to, or modifications of the         very differently. A farmer and an urban dweller may
   environment influenced by the characteristics         perceive the construction of a chemical fertilizer
   of specific environments such as weather and          plant outside of town very differently.)
   climate, landscape features, and natural
   resources                                             People's changing perceptions of environmental
                                                         modification over time, such as perceptions of
                                                         industrial smokestacks of the 1920s versus the
                                                         1990s or the use of forest resources in the 19th and
                                                         20th centuries

Sample Question C

Grade 8. Nuclear energy can be developed for peaceful purposes.

What is one argument in favor of developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes?

What is one argument against developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes?

Scoring Guide

Scoring rationale: Student demonstrates knowledge of an argument for and against developing nuclear energy.

3-Complete. The response presents one significant argument in favor of nuclear power and one significant argument against nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Correct answers may be drawn from the list given or include some other appropriate response.

2-Partial. The response presents a significant argument either for or against nuclear power. Other argument, if present, is insignificant or incorrect.

1-Inappropriate. The response fails to present a significant argument for either side of the issue. It may provide personal opinions or inaccurate assertions. Examples are that nuclear reactors are ugly, or that they are completely safe.

(47.3 percent correct; standard error 1.4)

Sample Question D

Grade 4. Most air and water pollution is caused by

A. ocean currents

* B. people

C. earthquakes

D. animals

*Key: B. (78.3 percent correct; standard error 1.3)

Spatial Dynamics and Connections

Geography's spatial perspective helps students understand the dynamics of connections among people, places, and regions. Connections are made when people travel from place to place, when ideas and beliefs such as capitalism or Islam spread across the world, or when products such as petroleum and automobiles move from producing to consuming areas.

Connections among people and places are influenced by a wide variety of factors including trade relationships, political tensions and changes, human migration, and technical change. Their effects may be positive in providing expanded opportunities and progress. They also may be negative, for example, in the case of disease or military conflict. Or they may combine both positive and negative consequences in the sense of advantages for some and hardships for others. (Topics falling within this content area are described in table 4.)

Table 4.-Topics within Spatial Dynamics and Connections
Spatial dynamics                                               Geographic factors that contribute to conflict and
   The effects of a variety of factors on the                  cooperation in social, political, and economic
   organization and identity of regions such as a              settings on a variety of scales, such as
   neighborhood, a metropolitan area, or the                   neighborhood youth and their perception of a local
   American Midwest                                            park as their territory or the varying national claims
                                                               on seabed resources
   The effects of factors such as proximity and distance
   on relationshipds between and among places                  Trans-regional organizations-alliances, cartels,
                                                               and formal international organizations-that are
   The effects of concepts of specialization and               formed international organizations-that are
   comparative advantage on the location of economic           spatial characteristics such as the creation of the
   activities such as U.S. specialization in commercial        Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
   airplane production. The United States dominates            (OPEC) to influence the international price of
   in this field and therefore has a comparative               petroleum
   advantage over other nations

   The effects of diverse cultures onthe characteristics       Natural and cultural phenomena that are spread by
   of places and regions such as ways in which                 diffusion throughout the world such as coffee,
   American grid cities differ from Islamic cities or          cocaine, and capitalism
   ways in which various cultures construct housing 
                                                               Voluntary and involuntary human migration
Connections                                                    patterns such as Russian Jews to Israel, or
   Concepts that are related to connections between            Mexicans to the United States
   people, places, and regions such as systems and
   networks                                                    Unequal distribution of resources that generate
                                                               trade, encourage interdependence and shape
   Changes in information systems, communications              economic patterns such as U.S. export of lumber
   networks, and transportation technologies that              to-and import of electronics from Japan
   increase connections such as in the building of
   supertankers or in the completion of the
   Trans-Alaska Pipeline                                     Living conditions
                                                               Standards of living that relate to regional economic
   District patterns of function in urban, suburban            differences and relationships such as cities to farms
   and rural regions such as land use and service              the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, or the United States
   requirements                                                to Canada and Mexico

Sample Question E

Grade 12. Maddieville is building a new shopping center. There is a disagreement in the city council over whether to build the shopping center at site A or at site B on the following chart. As a resident of the city who would like to shop at the shopping center, write a letter to the mayor in support of either site A or site B. Give three reasons why the site you support is better than the other site.

Scoring Guide

Scoring rationale: Student demonstrates the ability to judge the placement of a new shopping center based on evidence given on a map.

4-Complete. The response identifies a site and supports the choice with three reasons. (14.9 percent correct; standard error 1.1)

3-Essential. The response identifies a site and supports the choice with two reasons. (39.8 percent correct; standard error 1.3)

2-Partial. The response identifies a site and supports the choice with one reason. (28.7 percent correct; standard error 1.4)

1-Inappropriate. The response may or may not identify a site, but it does not offer any support for either location. (9.8 percent correct; standard error 0.8)

Sample Question F

Grade 8. What is an important reason that skyscrapers were built in American cities?

A. Construction companies liked to build structures that made residents feel as if they lived in single-family houses.

B. Skyscrapers allowed tenants to create a closer community.

* C. Skyscrapers allowed people to use small amounts of land more efficiently.

D. Citizens wanted to be safe from street crime.

*Key: C. (79.5 percent correct; standard error 0.9)

Cognitive Dimension

Three cognitive areas displayed as horizontal rows in table 1 specify areas of thinking expected of students as they embrace specific geography content. These cognitive areas are defined as knowing, understanding, and applying. The cognitive dimension tests the student's ability to perform mental tasks in these areas and expects students in grades 4, 8, and 12 to be able to think geographically in all three ways as they work with the content that is appropriate to their grade level.


(What is it? Where is it?)

In the area of knowing, students should be able to perform two related functions with respect to information: an observation function, such as observing different elements of the landscape; and a recall function, such as the name of a place or a resource indigenous to a particular country (see sample questions A and F).


(Why is it there? How did it get there? What is its significance?)

Understanding refers to the ability to see connections between diverse bits of geographic information, and to use that information to explain existing patterns and processes on Earth. For example, students may understand the concept of differential heating and cooling of air over land and water well enough to explain what is occurring in the atmosphere to cause this phenomenon (see sample questions C and D).


(How can knowledge and understanding be used to solve geographic problems?)

Applying refers to a range of higher-order thinking skills. Students are genuinely competent in geography when they are able to apply the knowledge and understanding of the discipline to real-life situations, allowing them to make personal decisions and seek solutions to societal problems. Examples of contemporary issues are the spread of diseases like AIDS or the suitability of different waste disposal programs to the needs of a particular urban center. To function in the Applying mode, students must be able to classify, hypothesize, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information (see sample questions B, C, and E).

The results of the assessment will be reported in the fall of 1995 in The NAEP 1994 Geography: A First Look report and The Geography Report Card. The results in these publications will be interpreted in the context of background variables such as television watching, number of geography courses taken, teacher qualifications, time spent teaching specified skills and topics, and computer availability.


1/Geography Assessment Framework for the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress (Washington, DC: National Assessment Governing Board, U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Government Printing Office).

2/Short constructed-response items usually require a phrase or a few sentences as an answer. Extended constructed-response tasks usually require in-depth answers. Both are scored according to specific criteria.

The Focus on NAEP series briefly summarizes information about the ongoing development and implementation of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The series is a product of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Gary W. Phillips, Associate Commissioner for Education Assessment. This issue was written by Sheida White from NCES and Christine O'Sullivan from Educational Testing Service.

For questions, and for more information about NAEP and to order NAEP products see the NAEP staff directory