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Indicator I-3 Knowledge of U.S. History
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Updated (6/25/2010).

See the
Note on the Difference between NAEP "Achievement" and "Performance" Levels.

Although it was introduced later and is given less frequently than the reading assessment, the NAEP for U.S. history also supplies data describing change over time in students’ knowledge of a core humanities subject. Figure I-3 depicts fourth, eighth and 12th graders’ history achievement in 2006 compared to that in 1994. Over this period, the percentage of students demonstrating at least basic achievement in the subject increased by a statistically significant, if numerically modest, margin.

Figure I-3, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

The greatest gains were made by fourth graders. In 2006, 70% of all students in this grade demonstrated at least basic knowledge of U.S. history, up from 64% in 1994. In addition, fourth graders proved themselves to be the most proficient overall in that a greater proportion of these students demonstrated at least basic achievement in history than did either of the two other age groups (in both testing years).

Accordingly, Figure I-3 shows that in both 1994 and 2006 the older the cohort the lower the proportion of students demonstrating basic knowledge. History proficiency declines most drastically in high school. In 2006, for example, 65% of middle schoolers demonstrated at least a basic understanding of history, while only 47% of high schoolers did so.

In addition to examining the trends both over time and across school grades, the cross-sectional picture should also be considered: the majority of American school-age children demonstrate minimal knowledge of the nation’s history. The absence of long-term trend data prevents a systematic evaluation of how recent a phenomenon this is, but research reveals that young people’s ignorance of history has been a source of public concern since the beginning of the 20th century.1

(The NAEP Data Explorer permits analysis of these assessment data by gender, ethnicity, and a number of other key variables. For both an overview of Explorer and tips for its effective use, see The Explorer itself is located at

1 Sam Wineburg, “Crazy for History,” Journal of American History, vol. 90, no. 4 (March 2004): 1401–1414.

Note on the Difference between NAEP "Achievement" and "Performance" Levels

The figures for Indicators I-1 through I-4 display the percentages of students scoring at certain levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP reading examination is scored differently from the other NAEP examinations (such as those in writing, history, and civics). On the latter exams, students are assessed according to grade-specific achievement scales. A student’s level of achievement is judged to be “basic,” “proficient,” or “advanced” depending on his or her score on the appropriate scale. A child scoring at the “advanced” achievement level on the 12th-grade civics exam is demonstrating different skills than a fourth grader scoring at the “advanced” level.

In contrast, the NAEP reading assessment uses a single scale, referred to as a performance scale, for 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds. What constitutes “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced” performance depends on the age of the examinee. Both a 9-year-old and a 17-year-old may score at Level 250 (able to interrelate ideas and make generalizations). Such a score would constitute an advanced level of performance on the part of the 9-year-old and a basic level of performance on the part of the 17-year-old.

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