Fourth-Graders Improve History, Civics Scores

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007

The nation's fourth-graders have shown significant gains in U.S. history and civics test scores, federal researchers reported yesterday, a development that -- coupled with similar recent advances in reading, math and science -- experts attribute in large part to an intense national focus on reading in early grades.

Educators said they were also heartened by significant improvement in 12th-grade U.S. history scores, the first national gain in any high school subject in eight years. The rise in elementary social studies scores, once considered in the doldrums, drew the most attention.

Two reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that the number of fourth-graders performing at or above basic level in 2006 increased from 64 to 70 percent in U.S. history since 1994, and from 69 to 73 percent in civics since 1998.

The number of 12th-graders at or above basic in U.S. history increased from 43 percent in 2001 to 47 percent in 2006. The National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the periodic test sampling of U.S. schools, said in a statement that this was "the first time since 1998 that high school students have had a significant increase in achievement on a NAEP assessment. On all NAEP assessments since then -- in reading, math, science and civics -- results have indicated flat or declining performance."

Experts said the rise in fourth-grade scores might be linked to strenuous efforts in the Washington area and elsewhere to improve the teaching of reading in kindergarten through third grade.

"Higher scores in fourth-grade history and civics go along with the recently reported higher reading scores," said Karin Chenoweth, a writer for the District-based Achievement Alliance and author of the book " 'It's Being Done': Academic Success in Unexpected Schools." "In the last NAEP reading report, fewer students -- particularly African American and Latino students -- scored below the basic level in the reading test, which means that more students are able to read and learn about history and civics. This could very well explain the higher history and civic scores at fourth grade, which are most pronounced among African American and Latino students."

Chenoweth said the higher history and civic scores in fourth grade and higher eighth- and 12th-grade history scores "may also mean that much of the hand-wringing about schools narrowing the curriculum to teach only what is tested on state reading and math tests is overdone -- especially in light of the fact that the fourth-grade science scores are also up."

Many educators still debate whether the government's increased emphasis on testing helps students. Kenneth Bernstein, a Prince George's County social studies teacher, said the 10th-graders coming into his classes "are decreasingly prepared for the subject . . . because of the decreasing time and attention to social studies in elementary and middle schools, where the focus has been on reading and math."

Peggy Altoff, president of the National Council for the Social Studies, suggested that the intensified reading instruction in primary grades might disguise a failure to teach much history and civics in fourth grade. Social studies test scores might be climbing, she said, because fourth-graders are more likely to understand simple questions that do not require much knowledge of history, such as interpreting pictures. Data show that most of the improvement in history and civics scores occurred among lower-scoring children, where advances in reading would have the most effect.

Alice Reilly, coordinator for K-12 social studies in Fairfax County, said she thought the increased 12th-grade scores might partially reflect steady improvement in scores on the Virginia Standards of Learning tests in U.S. history in 11th grade. Several years ago, Virginia's passing rate on the history tests was so low the state Board of Education was forced to significantly lower the passing score. Since then, students have made progress, and the number of Washington area high school students taking college-level Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate history courses has also increased.

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