Humanities Indicators
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K-12 Education  >  National Measures of Achievement
 
Knowledge of U.S. History
(Updated January 2016)

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) U.S. history examination is designed to gauge fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-grade students’ proficiency in U.S. history “in the context of democracy, culture, technological and economic changes,” as well as the country’s changing role in the world. The data show that the share of American students demonstrating proficiency in U.S. history is small—but slowly increasing, at least at the lower grade levels.[1]

Findings and Trends

  • From the mid-1990s to 2014, eighth graders’ history achievement improved. The percentage of students in the eighth grade scoring at the proficient achievement level or above in U.S. history increased by a statistically significant margin. In 2014, 18% of all eighth-grade students demonstrated proficiency, up from 14% in 1994. At the other end of the achievement scale, a smaller share of students scored at the below basic level in 2014 than in 1994. However, reflecting the slow upward trend of achievement, there was no statistically significant change from 2010 to 2014 (the two most recent assessments, as of January 2016) in the share of students scoring at either of these levels (Indicator I-3a).
  • Fourth and 12th graders were most recently tested in 2010. The share of students demonstrating proficiency in American history increased by a statistically significant margin only among the fourth graders (Indicator I-3b). In 2010, 20% of fourth-grade students demonstrated proficiency, up from 17% in 1994. In both 1994 and 2010, a greater proportion of fourth-grade students demonstrated proficiency in U.S. history than did 12th graders.
  • In every testing year, a substantial majority of children in the assessed grades failed to demonstrate proficiency in U.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 U.S. history has been a source of public concern since the beginning of the 20th century.[2]
I-3a: History Achievement of Eighth Graders as Measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1994–2014*

* Percentages for each year may not sum to 100 due to rounding.
** Value statistically significantly different (p < .05) from 2014.
† Accommodations not permitted for English language learners and students with disabilities; such accommodations permitted in later years.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress, The Nation’s Report Card: History 2014: Achievement Levels, http://www.nationsreportcard.gov/hgc_2014/#history/achievement, accessed 12/15/2015

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I-3b: History Achievement of Fourth and 12th Graders as Measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1994 and 2010

* Value statistically significantly different (p < .05) from 2010.
** Accommodations not permitted for English language learners and students with disabilities; such accommodations permitted in later years.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress, The Nation’s Report Card: U.S. History 2010, NCES 2011-468 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2011), 2 fig. C.

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Endnotes

[1] Proficiency, as measured by NAEP, is grade-specific. The knowledge and skills a fourth grader must demonstrate to be considered proficient are different from those that a 12th grader must demonstrate. For definitions of proficiency in history for each of the grade levels, see http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ushistory/achieve.aspx.
[2] Sam Wineburg, “Crazy for History,” Journal of American History 90, no. 4 (March 2004): 1,401–14.