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U.S. History: What Do Students Know, and What Can They Do?

Vol. 1, No. 4, October 1996

NCES 96-895

Ordering Information

The NAEP 1994 U.S. history assessment examined the ability of 4th-, 8th-, and 12th-grade students to answer the "how" and "why" of history as well as the "what." This NAEPfacts paper highlights student performance near the 25th-, 50th-, and 90th-percentiles for each grade, giving an overall picture of student abilities and limits.

The 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in U.S. history addressed both factual knowledge and higher-level cognitive skills associated with the study and interpretation of history. NAEP has had one previous U.S. history assessment, in 1988. However, the framework for the 1994 assessment was extensively redesigned to reflect current ideas about what students ought to know about history and what they ought to be able to do with that knowledge. Thus, results of the two assessments are not comparable.

The1994 assessment used separate examinations, given to a representative sample of the nation's 4th-, 8th-, and 12th-grade students-approximately 22,000 young people in 1,500 public and private schools around the country. This issue of NAEPfacts reviews the knowledge and abilities manifested by students scoring near the 25th, 50th, and 90th percentiles, for each grade.

The framework for the NAEP 1994 U.S. history assessment was developed by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) through a consensual process involving historians and educators from around the country. The goal was to develop an assessment that would focus on students' ability to answer the "how" and the "why" of history as well as the "what." To measure students' interpretive abilities effectively, the NAEP 1994 U.S. history assessment asked students to analyze and respond to a variety of historical materials, including original documents, paintings, political cartoons, charts, graphs, maps and time lines.(Footnote 1)(See figure 1.) In addition, the assessment relied extensively on short- and extended-essay questions, rather than multiple choice questions.(Footnote 2) Students spent most of their time answering essay questions, although multiple-choice questions constituted the majority of questions on the examinations.

painting of George Washington

Figure 1: NAEP 1994 U.S. History Sample Question
The NAEP 1994 U.S. history assessment asked students to interpret historical materials, not simply respond to factual questions. Eighth graders who scored at the 50th percentile and above were likely to recognize that this painting of George Washington reflected a desire to glorify him, rather than present him in a realistic light.

Student Performance
The NAEP 1994 U.S. history assessment uses a scale ranging from 0 to 500 for each of the three grades. Table 1 gives the national average scores for each grade, along with the scale ranges for the 25th, 50th, and 90th percentiles for each grade. Students described as being at a particular level were within a 5-percentage point range on either side of the specified scale point.(Footnote 3) For example, the 50th percentile was defined as the region between the 45th- and 55th-percentile points on the scale.

Fourth-grade performance
The results, outlined in table 2, show that fourth-grade students near the 25th percentile could recall well-known historical persons and events, such as those connected with national holidays. For the most part, they required direct pictorial clues to recall persons or events. Students at this level recognized Martin Luther King, Jr. as the author of the "I have a dream" speech.

At the 50th percentile, fourth-grade students could go beyond simple factual knowledge. They could recall and show an understanding of major historical concepts, and could make simple inferences using historical documents and materials. For example, they could recognize the symbolic significance of the Statue of Liberty.

Fourth graders near the 90th percentile could connect new information with what they already knew, interpret information from primary sources and recognize cause-and-effect relationships. They had a rudimentary ability to read maps and were able to use a variety of primary and secondary sources. For example, they could place Lincoln's "House Divided" speech in context of the national debate over slavery preceding the Civil War.

Eighth-grade performance
As shown in, table 3 eighth graders near the 25th percentile could recall basic historical persons and events, make basic use of primary and secondary historical sources, and make direct inferences from pictorial sources. Specifically, these students could use pie charts to draw conclusions about changes in population for the thirteen colonies.

At the 50th percentile, 8th grade students could place people, events, and concepts in historical context, make historical inferences from text and visual sources, and recognize cause-and-effect relationships. They also had some ability to recognize a point of view in primary source material. Students at this level could identify Thomas Jefferson as the major author of the Declaration of Independence.

Eighth graders near the 90th percentile could recall a broad range of topics and themes and demonstrated some understanding of historical context. They were able to use a variety of primary sources and could generally recognize a point of view evident in these sources. For example, they could recognize the reasons for the debate at the Constitutional Convention over the status of slaves for purposes of determining state population counts.

Twelfth-grade performance
The results for twelfth graders are shown in table 4. Students near the 25th percentile could recall major historical figures and events and understand straightforward data tables. They had some grasp of chronology and such historical concepts as cause and effect. For example, they were able to identify an excerpt of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that outlawed school segregation.

Twelfth graders near the 50th percentile demonstrated knowledge of general historical chronology and were able to obtain information from a wide variety of historical documents. They showed some ability to analyze point of view in a document and to use prior historical knowledge when interpreting a source. They demonstrated a beginning understanding of historical concepts, such as the ability to compare and contrast situations across time and to identify cause-and-effect relationships. For example, the recognized that the U.S. responded to the Soviet Union's successful launching of Sputnik by increasing its investment in scientific education and the military.

Twelfth graders near the 90th percentile were able to show some understanding of the impact of major religious and social movements and to comprehend fairly complex primary documents, including those written in archaic language. They had a broad understanding of U.S. history, particularly for the 19th and 20th centuries, which frequently went beyond the surface level. For example, they recognized that "Lost Generation" writers of the 1920s such as F. Scott Fitzgerald "criticized what they regarded as the shallow materialism of the United States during the 1920s."

Conclusion
The NAEP 1994 U.S. history assessment was constructed to be challenging. It required students to marshal bodies of complex knowledge, as well as to show their abilities to analyze, to explore points of view, and to think critically about U.S. history. Results of the assessment reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the American student population at differing points along the scale. Educators can compare the framework of the assessment with their own ideas about essential content for courses related to

U.S. history. They can determine for themselves the value of the various analytical tasks set before students by the assessment. And by reviewing student performance on the assessment, they may obtain new ideas for revising and improving course content and instructional practices.

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Table 1.-U.S. History Average Scores and Scales Ranges

Grade       National          25th          50th            90th
            Average        Percentile    Percentile      Percentile
4th           205           171-187       205-215         246-263
8th           259           233-244       257-265         292-308
12th          286           259-270       284-292         319-335

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of
Educational Progress(NAEP), 1994 U.S. History Assessment.
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Table 2.-Profile of Fourth-Grade History Performance by Percentile

4th graders near the 25th percentile could:
*   recall famous historical figures
*   recall events connected to national holidays
*   recognize pictorial sources

4th graders near the 60th percentile could:
*   recall some major concepts
*   use various sources, such as time lines and texts, to make simple 
    historical inferences
*   begin to grasp historical concepts, such as relationships between
    geography and human settlement

4th graders near the 90th percentile could:
*   connect prior knowledge and new information
*   Interpret information from primary sources such as diaries and maps
*   begin to grasp cause-and-effect relationships 

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment 
of Educational Progress(NAEP), 1994 U.S. History Assessment.
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Table 3.-Profile of Eigth-Grade History Performance by Percentile

8th graders near the 25th percentile could:
*   recall famous historical figures and events
*   make basic use of primary and secondary historical sources
*   make direct inferences from pictorial sources

8th graders near the 50th percentile could:
*   place people, events and concepts in general historical content
*   make direct historical inferences from text and visual sources
*   recognize cause-and-effect relationships

8th graders near the 90th percentile could:
*   recall a broad range of topics and themes
*   apply knowledge of historical context and chronology to make connections 
    to historical patterns and themes
*   use data to infer cause-and-effect and comparative relationships

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment 
of Educational Progress(NAEP), 1994 U.S. History Assessment.
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Table 4.-Profile of Twelfth-Grade History Performance by Percentile

12th graders near the 25th percentile could:
*    recognize some major historical documents
*    make direct inferences from a variety of documents
*    draw simple cause-and-effect relationships

12th graders near the 50th percentile could:
*    show general knowledge of historical chronology, especially 20th
     century history
*    interpret a wide range of historical documents, including cartoons,
     maps, and texts
*    show some grasp of point of view in documents

12th graders near the 90th percentile could:
*    grasp the impact of major social and religious movements
*    interpret and evaluate points of view in various historical sources
*    evaluate connections between events and policies

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of 
Educational Progress(NAEP), 1994 U.S. History Assessment
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Notes
1 See U.S. History Framework for the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress (Washington, DC: National Assessment Governing Board, U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Printing Office), http://www.nagb.org/pub.html.

2 Ibid.

3 A procedure known as scale anchoring was used to develop descriptions of student performance at the 25th, 50th, and 90th percentiles. Around each percentile a band was built to define a range of scale scores. Questions given as examples of student knowledge at a given percentile were answered successfully by at least 65 percent of the students within that percentile band. The criterion was set at 74 percent for multiple-choice questions to correct for the possibility of answering correctly by guessing.

For Further Information
Focus on NAEP: NAEP 1994 Assessment in U.S. History, NCES 95-809. A short overview of the framework of the assessment. Single copies available free from the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC 20208-5653. Copies may be ordered over the World Wide Web at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/.

NAEP 1994 U.S. History: A First Look; Findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, NCES 95-806. A 55-page report on the NAEP 1994 U.S. history assessment. Single copies available free from the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC 20208-5653. Copies may also be obtained over the World Wide Web at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/.

NAEP 1994 U.S. History Report Card, NCES 96-085. The complete, 155-page report. Includes all tables, explanatory data and an extensive collection of sample questions. Single copies available free from the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC 20208-5653. Copies may also be obtained over the World Wide Web at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/

NAEPfacts briefly summarize findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This series is a product of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Gary W. Phillips, Associate Commissioner for Education Assessment. This issue of NAEPfacts was written by Alan Vanneman, of the Education Statistics Services Institute.

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