The Washington Post

How much geography do kids know? Not so much

Newly released geography scores from the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress show that fewer than one-third of the nation’s fourth, eighth and twelfth graders were proficient in the subect.

On the following seemingly easy question, only 33 percent of eighth-grade students who took the test got the correct answer:

Which of the following is an accurate statement about the American Southwest?

a) Alternating areas of dense shrubbery and sand dunes often make travel difficult.

b) Arid conditions make access to water an important public issue.

c) Generally fair weather means that most people rely on solar energy in their homes and businesses.

d) Easy access to Mexico has led to a strong manufacturing sector.

The correct answer is B.

And 33 percent of eighth graders indicated they had no understanding of the relationship between tectonic plates and earthquakes. (You can find more geography assessment questions here at the NAEP Questions T ool.

NAEP, administered to nationally representative samples of students by the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education, is sometimes referred to as the nation’s report card because it is the only K-12 assessment system given across the country. The 2010 assessment in geography was given to 7,000 fourth graders, 9,500 eighth graders and 10,000 twelfth graders.

Recently released scores on NAEP tests in civics and U.S. history, together with the geography results, generally show disappointing performance in the social sciences, particularly in the 12th grade.

How much geography do students actually study? According to the report:

*47% of fourth-graders had teachers who reported teaching about spatial dynamics and connections once or twice a month in 2010.

*64% of eighth-graders reported studying about countries and cultures once a week or more in 2010.

*65% of twelfth-graders reported studying about natural resources once a month or more in 2010.

Among the 2010 geography assessment results:

*Fourth graders posted the highest average score ever — five points higher on average than in 2001 and 7 points higher than in 1994. But only 21 percent performed at or above the proficient level and 2 percent performed at the advanced level. Twenty-one percent were below basic and the rest were at basic.

And fourth graders who were eligible for free lunch, considered a measure of family income, scored 32 points lower on average than those who were not eligible.

*Eighth graders showed no significant change from previous assessments, with 26 percent performing below basic, 27 percent performing at proficient, 3 percent at advanced and the rest at basic.

Again, the poorer the student, the lower the scores. Eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch are indicators of poverty. According to the report, students eligible for reduced-price lunch scored 16 points lower than students not eligible — and those eligible for free lunch scored 11 points lower than the reduced price lunch eligible.

*Twelfth graders did not see a real decline in the average score from 2010 compared to 2001, but they did compared to 1994. In 2010, 30 percent scored below basic, about the same as the previous assessment years. But in 2010, only 20 percent scored at proficient and 1 percent advanced; in 1994, 27 percent were proficient with 2 percent scoring at the advanced level.

Twelfth graders who reported that the highest level of education of one or both of their parents was a college degree scored the highest, in line with other research showing that students with educated parents perform better in school.

*In 2010, Black students made larger gains since 1994 than white students at grades 4 and 8, narrowing the gap by 20 points at grade 4 and nine points at grade 8. Hispanic students’ scores were higher than in previous years for grades 4 and 8, but only in the fourth grade did the gap between Hispanic and white students’ scores narrow.

On the NAEP geography exams, students are tested on content knowledge and cognitive skills and they answer questions about a range of topics, including space and place, spatial patterns on the Earth's surface and processes that shape spatial patterns, and environment and society.

What do basic, proficient and advanced levels actually mean? According to a release by the National Assessment Governing Board, the body that oversees the content and administration of the NAEP:

“At grade 4, students who scored at or above the Basic level (79 percent) were likely to be able to recognize the purpose of a building structure shown in a photograph; students scoring at or above the Proficient level (21 percent) were likely to be able to recognize what prevents soil erosion; and students scoring at Advanced (2 percent) were likely to be able to use a map to understand city development.

“At grade 8, students who scored at or above the Basic level (74 percent) were likely to be able to identify which of four maps shows the most area; students at or above Proficient (27 percent) were likely to be able to explain the effect of a monsoon in India; and students at Advanced (3 percent) were likely to be able to describe the impact of a highway on a landscape.

“At grade 12, students who scored at or above the Basic level (70 percent) were likely to be able to graph elevation on a contour map; students at or above Proficient (20 percent) were likely to be able to explain why Mali is considered overpopulated; and students at Advanced (1 percent) were likely to be able to describe wetland functions.”


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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.


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