ERIC Identifier: ED412169
Publication Date: 1997-04-00
Author: Stoltman, Joseph P.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress in Geography. ERIC Digest.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in Geography is a periodic survey of geographic knowledge and skills of students at grades four, eight, and twelve. The 1994 NAEP probed students' ability to recall, understand, analyze, and interpret geographic information and to apply content to complete various practical tasks. Trends in NAEP scores over a period of years will enable educators and others to evaluate whether children in the United States are developing the geography skills and knowledge essential for effective participation in the economic and political activities of the nation.


A comprehensive framework guided the structure and content of the geography assessment. Three geography content areas served as the core organizing structure of the assessment:

* Space and Place: knowledge of geography as it relates to particular places on earth, to spatial patterns on earth's surface, and to physical and human processes that shape such spatial patterns.

* Environment and Society: knowledge of geography as it relates to the interactions between environment and society.

* Spatial Dynamics and Connections: knowledge of geography as it relates to spatial connections among people, places, and regions.

The framework required the assessment to include both multiple-choice questions and constructed-response questions. The constructed-response questions challenged the students to write answers ranging in length from a few words or sentences to as much as several paragraphs. The emphasis within both the multiple-choice and constructed-response items was on higher-order thinking. The recall of information was, for the most part, subsumed by questions that required respondents to use facts to carry out higher-order cognitive operations. Thus, the assessment emphasized the use of knowledge, not the mere recall of information.


Results for each grade--fourth, eighth, and twelfth--are reported according to three achievement levels: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. These achievement levels are based on expert judgments about what students should know and be able to do in geography at the three grade levels assessed. The Basic level denotes partial mastery of knowledge and skills that are fundamental for satisfactory work at each grade. A score at the Basic level means there are additional knowledge and skills necessary for a student to perform competently in geography. The Proficient level represents solid academic performance and demonstrated competence over challenging subject matter. The Advanced level signifies superior performance, demonstrating excellence in knowing and using geography.

The Proficient level was reached by 19 percent of fourth graders, 24 percent of eighth graders, and 25 percent of twelfth graders. The Advanced level was attained by 3 percent, 4 percent, and 2 percent of the students respectively, by grade. At each grade, roughly 70 percent of students were at Basic level or higher and approximately 30 percent were below the Basic level.

On sample assessment tasks, students demonstrated a range of competencies:

* At grade four, 79 percent of the students could identify the water cycle from an illustration; 70 percent could draw a generally accurate map of an island from a written description; 59 percent could use a map to explain the concentration of highways in the eastern United States; and 13 percent could describe two important effects of an oil spill in the ocean.

* At grade eight, 90 percent of students knew where to locate information in an atlas; 70 percent could understand why immigrants congregate in New York City; 48 percent could identify latitude on a polar map projection; and 36 percent could identify and explain two reasons why a particular route for a railroad would prove cheaper to construct than an alternate route.

* At grade twelve, 91 percent of students could use a map to identify an area of earthquake activity; 66 percent could construct a precipitation pie chart from tabular data; 55 percent could give a least two geographically accurate reasons why a shopping center should be placed at a given location; and 10 percent could identify Canada as the United States' largest trading partner.

There were statistically significant differences in the geography scores for major subgroups of the population. For example, at all grades white and Asian students had higher average scores than did their black and Hispanic counterparts. There was a strong relationship between differing levels of parental education and performance on the geography assessment. As a general rule, the more education students reported that their parents had received, the better the students performed on the assessment. Male students at grades four, eight, and twelve performed at a higher level than females. At all three grades, students attending non-public schools performed at a higher level than did students attending public schools.


Students in this 1994 NAEP assessment were asked to complete questionnaires about home and school experiences related to learning geography, while teachers and school administrators completed questionnaires about their students' instructional experiences. The survey results help place assessment scores within the larger context of the community and the school. Policymakers and educational researchers may find the information useful when considering which variables are positively and negatively related to geography achievement. The data revealed the following relationships:

* Over 40 percent of the students at grades four and eight and 25 percent of the students at grade twelve reported watching four or more hours of television each day. In general, the more television students reported watching, the worse they performed on the geography assessment.

* Fifty-six percent of fourth graders, 39 percent of eighth graders, and 31 percent of twelfth graders reported discussing their studies at home daily. By contrast, 17, 21, and 24 percent of students at grades four, eight, and twelve, respectively, reported never or hardly ever discussing their studies at home. Students who reported not discussing their studies at home performed at a lower level than did students who discussed their studies on a regular basis.

* Twenty-six percent of fourth graders, 19 percent of eighth graders, and 14 percent of twelfth graders indicated that geography was their favorite subject. At all grades, students who indicated that geography was their favorite subject performed at a higher level than did those who indicated that they liked other subjects better.


Too many students in the United States of America do not demonstrate achievement of essential content and skills in geography. Future NAEPs will most likely be aligned with the "National Geography Standards." Work on state-level curriculum development and assessment should be based on the national standards to enhance students' performances on the next NAEP in geography.

A second important conclusion from the 1994 NAEP in Geography is the importance of analytical thinking and writing skills. Constructed response questions on the NAEP required three thoughtful operations by the student. The first step required content interpretation of geographic information from a map or graph. This necessitated the processing of information in the form of symbols and scale. Knowledge of the interaction between environments and people represented on the map or graph led to the second step, that of recognizing a problem and making a reasoned decision about how it could be resolved. The third step was to justify the decision based on the analysis of information. Items such as these are rigorous. To answer them successfully requires regular opportunities to study and work with geographic content.

The NAEP reports and released items from the assessment are important resources to consider when planning regular classroom based assessments in geography. They will help guide teachers and students to new higher standards of achievement in geography.


Allen, Russell, and Others. THE GEOGRAPHY LEARNING OF HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1990. ED 313 317.

Bednarz, Robert S., and James Petersen. "The Reform Movement in Geographic Education: A View from the Summit." JOURNAL OF GEOGRAPHY 93 (January-February 1994): 61-64. EJ 485 605.

Bednarz, Sarah Witham, and Others. GEOGRAPHY FOR LIFE: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHY STANDARDS. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1994. ED 375 073.

Black, Susan. "Rediscovering Geography." EXECUTIVE EDUCATOR 18 (May 1996): 30-33. EJ 522 809.

Fromboluti, Carol Sue. HELPING YOUR CHILD LEARN GEOGRAPHY. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 1990. ED 313 316.

NAEP GEOGRAPHY CONSENSUS PROJECT. GEOGRAPHY FRAMEWORK FOR THE 1994 NATIONAL ASSESSMENT OF EDUCATIONAL PROGRESS. Washington, DC: National Assessment Governing Board of the U.S. Department of Education, 1994. ED 373 019.

Patrick, John J. GEOGRAPHY IN U.S. HISTORY: A TEACHER'S GUIDE. Bloomington, IN: Agency for Instructional Technology, 1991. ED 337 386.

Persky, Hilary R., and Others. NAEP 1994 GEOGRAPHY REPORT CARD: FINDINGS FROM THE NATIONAL ASSESSMENT OF EDUCATIONAL PROGRESS. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1996. ED 398 145.

Library Reference Search

Please note that this site is privately owned and is in no way related to any Federal agency or ERIC unit.  Further, this site is using a privately owned and located server. This is NOT a government sponsored or government sanctioned site. ERIC is a Service Mark of the U.S. Government. This site exists to provide the text of the public domain ERIC Documents previously produced by ERIC.  No new content will ever appear here that would in any way challenge the ERIC Service Mark of the U.S. Government.

More To Explore