Sam Wineburg on Our Limited Knowledge of U.S. History

History education scholar Sam Wineburg has weighed-in on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) report confirming, once again, the fact that school children do not know American history.

Wineburg reminds us that these kind of tests have ALWAYS resulted in data suggesting that school children do not know American history.  In fact, he already predicted, back in 2004, that the 2010 results would be bad:

Indeed, my powers exceed explanation.  I can predict the future.  In March 2004, seven years before the release of the last week’s NAEP findings, I wrote the following in the pages Journal of American History:“When the next national assessment rolls around in 2010 do not hold your breath for the headline announcing ‘U.S. Children Score Well on the 100 Most Basic Facts of American History.’ The architecture of modern psychometrics ensures that that will never happen—no matter how good a job we do in the classroom.”

Wineburg suggest two reasons why he was able to predict the future:

1.  The flawed nature of the test.

2.  The fact that students are tested on material that even educated adults do not know or understand.  Wineburg writes:

When you scroll through the lists, you’ll see that kids are tested on information that would make not only Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman look squeamish, but also members of the NAEP governing board.  Can the non-historians among the NAEP governors offer cogent explanations of the Proclamation of 1763, the significance of Shays’ Rebellion, or explain the significance of Missouri statehood in the context of secessionism?  Give twelfth-graders a break, please.

Wineburg concludes:

Let’s soberly examine the questions we use to test our children.  Consider the following item (listed in the NAEP framework for the fourth grade), in which students are asked to read this passage:

Follow the drinkin’ gourd/For the old man is awaitin’ for to carry you to freedom/If you follow the drinkin’ gourd.  
Why did African Americans originally sing this song?
a. It helped teach children to read and write.
b. It celebrated American independence.
c. It gave directions about how to escape from slavery.
d. It was written by slaves in Africa.

Forty-two percent of students marked C, which according to NAEP is the correct response.  But I have to admit:  I would have chosen A from these four flawed alternatives.  No slave could have sung the line “For the old man is awaitin’,” as it was written in 1947 by Lee Hays, a member of the Weavers.  How is it that our national history test uses an interpolated section of a dubious “coded” song—a text that historians have shown to be a fiction of the twentieth century—to quiz kids?

Yes, we’d be better off if kids knew more history.  And we’d be better off if adults knew more history, too.

Read the entire article here, along with other responses to the NAEP results from Rick Shenkman, Linda Salvucci, James Grossman, and Jim Cullen.