Most fourth-graders who took a national U.S. history test last year were stumped when asked a question such as this: Identify a picture of Abraham Lincoln and give two reasons why he was important.
A majority of eighth-graders had trouble with this kind of question: Articulate an advantage American forces had over the British during the Revolutionary War. And most 12th-graders missed on questions of this sort: Why did the United States enter World War I?
Those findings were included Tuesday in the first federal readout on history achievement in four years.
Average scores for history on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — a federally funded series known as the nation’s report card — have risen slowly since 1994. But the portion of students who fail to reach a basic level of achievement remains larger than the share rated as proficient or advanced, particularly for high school seniors.
Fourth-graders showed the most improvement during that time, with average scores rising from 205 to 214 on a 500-point scale. African American and Hispanic students narrowed the achievement gap with white students in that grade. Experts have posited that gains at the elementary level could be linked to stronger reading abilities.
For eighth-graders, the average score increased from 259 in 1994 to 266 last year. For 12th-graders, performance rose two points, to 288, even as participation in Advanced Placement U.S. history classes has grown significantly.
“We are encouraged by the progress of our fourth- and eighth-graders, particularly by the gains being made by students who traditionally have been among the lowest performers,” said David P. Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the test. “We want to see more progress overall by our 12th-graders, who will soon be active citizens.”
Since 2006, the last time the history test was given, scores rose modestly for eighth-graders. But changes in fourth- and 12th-grade scores in that time were not considered statistically significant.
The history test is given to a nationally representative sample of students in public and private schools. More than 31,000 students nationwide were tested in three grades in 2010. Scores were not reported separately for states or the District of Columbia.
The exam evaluated history knowledge across the themes of democracy, culture, technology and the changing role of the United States in the world. Scores were compared with the results from 2006, 2001 and 1994, and they were sorted into four achievement levels: advanced, proficient, basic and below basic.
Overall, 73 percent of fourth-graders scored basic or better in 2010, showing at least partial mastery of knowledge and skills, up from 64 percent in 1994. For eighth-graders, the rate was 69 percent, up from 61 percent. For 12th-graders, 45 percent showed at least basic knowledge, up from 43 percent.
Across the board, students were more likely to score below basic than to demonstrate a proficient or advanced level of knowledge.
Some experts say poor performance in U.S. history reflects that schools have given less emphasis to social studies than to reading and math since the federal No Child Left Behind law was enacted in 2002. Although academic standards have been tightened and improved for reading and math across the country, history standards and course sequences vary widely by state.
“There’s not always a serious emphasis on . . . what we call ‘real history,’ including things like chronology and basic information about what happened and when and why,” said Chester E. Finn Jr. of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington organization that advocates high academic standards.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. education secretary, said: “For middle school and high school students, U.S. history remains our students’ worst subject and we must do better. We need to return U.S. history to its rightful place in the classroom so that our children grow up learning what it means to be an American.”