ERIC Identifier: ED329486
Publication Date: 1991-01-00
Author: Patrick, John J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science
Education Bloomington IN.
Achievement of Knowledge by High School Students in
Core Subjects of the Social Studies. ERIC Digest.
During 1990, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)
reported findings about elementary and secondary school students' knowledge
of U.S. history, geography, and civics. In 1988, the Joint Council on Economic
Education reported findings about its national study of high school students'
knowledge of economics. The designers and reporters of these national assessments
have assumed that their instruments measured knowledge students should
have learned through involvement with the social studies curriculum in
elementary and secondary school. The synthesis of findings in this Digest,
however, is restricted to 11th and 12th graders--to students who have completed
most, if not all, of the school's social studies curriculum. What do they
know about core subjects of the social studies--U.S. history, geography,
economics, and civics--after completion of most of their coursework?
HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS' KNOWLEDGE OF U.S. HISTORY
Most upper level high school students reveal serious gaps in their knowledge
of major events and themes in U.S. history. In a 1986 assessment, eleventh-grade
students responded to 141 multiple choice items on sixteen categories (e.g.,
the Constitution, civil rights, women in history, labor and industry, geography
in history, and international relations). The average score was 54.5 percent
The second national assessment of knowledge of history (reported in
1990) confirmed the findings of the first survey. The overall results of
a trend study indicated essentially "no change from 1986 to 1988 in the
high school juniors' factual knowledge of U.S. history" (NAEP 1990d, 8).
A national sample of twelfth-grade students, who also participated in the
second history assessment, performed generally at the same low level as
did the eleventh-grade respondents. About half of them lacked understanding
of key historical terms, fundamental primary documents, and significant
relationships among facts and ideas in U.S. history. More than half of
these respondents, for example, were ignorant of main ideas in the Declaration
of Independence, Constitution of 1787, and Bill of Rights, and of their
applications to issues in American history.
HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS' KNOWLEDGE OF GEOGRAPHY
A similar pattern of generally poor performance occurred in the national
assessment of geographic knowledge (NAEP 1990c). The 76-item test measured
knowledge of four topics: knowing locations, using geography skills and
tools, understanding cultural geography, and understanding physical geography.
Overall, the national sample of twelfth-grade students answered only 57
percent of these items correctly. Average scores for the four topics in
the test ranged from 53 percent correct on geographic skills and tools
to 60 percent correct in the cultural geography category.
Very few of the respondents had taken a high school course in geography.
Most of them, however, had been exposed to some geography content in their
history and science courses. Students whose American history courses included
substantial treatment of geography performed better than the others on
HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS' KNOWLEDGE OF ECONOMICS
High School students performed about as poorly in a Joint Council on
Economic Education survey as similar respondents did in the NAEP tests
of knowledge of history and geography. An assessment of 8,205 eleventh-
and twelfth-grade students in private and public schools in 33 states revealed
vast ignorance of key economic concepts, such as gross national product,
inflation, monetary policy, and opportunity costs (Walstad & Soper
Respondents who had completed a high school course in economics had
a mean score of only 52 percent correct answers on the Test of Economic
Literacy. Students in social studies courses that included economics content
had an average score of 48 percent. The average score of students in social
studies courses without economics content was 37 percent correct. The greatest
deficiency among all groups of respondents was their lack of knowledge
of concepts in macroeconomics.
HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS' KNOWLEDGE OF CIVICS
By contrast to the assessments in other core subjects, a mixed picture
of student achievement was revealed by the measurement of knowledge in
civics (NAEP 1990b). The 144 items in this test were grouped into four
categories: (1) democratic principles and the purpose of government, (2)
structures and functions of political institutions, (3) political processes,
and (4) rights, responsibilities, and the law. The highest mean score in
any of the four categories was 78.9 percent correct on rights, responsibilities,
and the law. Students tended to be well informed about constitutional rights
of persons accused of a crime, and about the legal exercise and limits
of free expression. They were markedly less informed about the sources
of their civil liberties and rights in events and documents of the founding
period of American history.
Mean scores (percentages) in three other categories of this test were
rather low: category 1--61.4, category 2--63.6, and category 3--64.5. In
particular, only about half of the twelfth-grade students demonstrated
an adequate understanding of specific principles of constitutional democracy
in the United States, such as federalism, separation of powers, and checks
and balances, and of the applications of these principles in institutions
and processes of government. A disturbing finding was that upper level
high school students did "significantly less well" in civics in the 1988
assessment than their 1982 counterparts (NAEP 1990b, 13).
FACTORS ASSOCIATED WITH HIGHER ACHIEVEMENT
Better performances in the NAEP studies about civics, geography, and
history were associated with the following factors: educational attainment
of parents, a home environment where reading and information are valued,
a stable family structure, limited television viewing, and regular performance
of school assignments at home. The NAEP studies also suggested relationships
between classroom lessons involving utilization of knowledge and higher
level performances on tests of knowledge in civics, geography, and history.
For example, students who said their teachers required them to interpret
and apply knowledge to the completion of tasks tended to score much higher
on these assessments of knowledge than did respondents who reported that
their lessons were limited mostly to reading and recalling the contents
of textbook chapters. Students in government and civics courses who reported
participation in mock trials or mock congressional hearings tended to perform
at a higher level on the assessment of knowledge of civics than did students
who were not involved in these kinds of activities.
Factors associated with higher scores on the Test of Economic Literacy
were the teacher's knowledge of economics and the teacher's access to curriculum
resources and on-going programs of in-service education in economics. Students
with higher scores on the Test of Economic Literacy tended to have teachers
with more completed coursework in economics. This relationship prevailed
not only for teachers of separate courses in economics, but also for teachers
of other subjects, such as history or government, who infused economics
into their courses. Further, there was a positive relationship between
teachers in school districts that have had strong programs of in-service
education in economics and students with higher scores on the Test of Economic
In general, systematic and stimulating exposure to fundamental knowledge
in the core social studies subjects--history, geography, civics, and economics--is
associated with higher scores on tests of knowledge in these academic disciplines.
Students who reported more challenging contacts with key topics and ideas
made higher scores on the tests of knowledge. One might also hypothesize
that students' general lack of knowledge, as exhibited by the recent national
assessments, diminishes their ability to develop and use skills in deliberation,
discourse, critical thinking, and decision making--all of which are basic
attributes of exemplary citizenship in a constitutional democracy. It would
seem, for example, that students with little knowledge of the origins and
development of the U.S. Constitution would be unlikely to achieve proficiency
in analysis and appraisal of issues about constitutional rights. Moreover,
it would seem that students who lack knowledge about civic participation
would not be likely to have either strong orientations to or skills in
this fundamental facet of democratic citizenship.
The overall achievement of upper-level high school students in the core
subjects of the social studies is dismal. Less than half of these students
graduate from high school with in-depth knowledge and understanding of
these core subjects--history, geography, civics, and economics. Fewer than
ten percent appear to have the ability to use social studies knowledge
to complete higher order intellectual tasks. A review of findings from
twenty years of NAEP concludes: "The current levels of student achievement
are unacceptably low for our country's needs and aspirations and for the
personal goals of its citizens" (NAEP 1990a, 29). There is obviously a
continuing need for substantial improvement in the teaching and learning
of core social studies subjects.
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES
The following list of resources includes references used to prepare
this Digest. The items followed by an ED number are in the ERIC system.
They are available in microfiche and paper copies from the ERIC Document
Reproduction Service (EDRS). For information about prices, contact EDRS,
7420 Fullerton Road, Suite 110, Springfield, Virginia 22153-2852; telephone
numbers are 703-404-1400 and 800-443-3742. Entries followed by an EJ number
are annotated monthly in CURRENT INDEX TO JOURNALS IN EDUCATION (CIJE),
which is available in most libraries. EJ documents are not available through
EDRS; however, they can be located in the journal section of most libraries
by using the bibliographic information provided below.
Agresto, John. "NEH Places Renewed Emphasis on History." OAH Magazine
of History 2 (Winter 1986): 13. EJ 351 587.
National Assessment of Educational Progress. America's Challenge: Accelerating
Academic Achievement. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1990a.
National Assessment of Educational Progress. The Civics Report Card.
Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1990b. ED 315 376.
National Assessment of Educational Progress. The Geography Learning
of High School Seniors. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1990c.
ED 315 317.
National Assessment of Educational Progress. The U.S. History Report
Card. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1990d. ED 315 377.
Resnick, Daniel P., and Lauren B. Resnick. "Standards, Curriculum, and
Performance: A Historical and Comparative Perspective." Educational Researcher
14 (April 1985): 5-20. EJ 317 701.
Rogers, Vincent R., and Chris Stevenson. "How Do We Know What Kids Are
Learning in School?" Educational Leadership 45 (February 1988): 68-75.
EJ 368 832.
Walstad, William B., and John C. Soper. A Report Card on the Economic
Literacy of U.S. High School Students. New York: Joint Council on Economic
Education, 1988. ED 310 005.
Zwick, Rebecca, and Kadriye Erickan. "Analysis of Differential Item
Functioning in the NAEP History Assessment." Journal of Educational Measurement
26 (Spring 1989): 55-66. EJ 391 535.