History Test Scores Have Dropped

By Kayla Schultz

The state of public education has been and always will be a hot topic of conversation. While many of those conversations veer toward the political, it always comes back to one essential question: Are we doing enough to prepare our nation’s youth for a successful future?

 It was Malcolm X who once said, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”1 Yet, many children today likely don’t even know who Malcolm X is. At least, that’s what the 2018 NAEP Report Card on U.S. History would suggest.

Every few years, the government administers a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in U.S. History to eighth-grade students. Results for the 2018 test, the most recent, were just released and for the first time since testing began in 1994, the average score dropped. It dropped in all four themes of U.S. History, including Democracy, Culture, Technology, and World Role. It dropped for almost every ethnicity that was sampled. It dropped for both male and female students. It dropped across the board, and it’s up to our public education system to figure out why.

For us at The Pursuit of History, it’s less about why and more about what it means moving forward. How do the statistics in this report translate to adults seeking history education? Well, it’s simple really. Think about all the information you’ve retained since eighth grade. You might still be able to do long division or diagram a sentence, but can you recall specific battles in the American Revolutionary War? Can you recite the facts you learned about James K. Polk for that one report you did? If you can, great! You’re a natural student of history. The majority of adults, however, can’t—especially if they weren’t taught it well enough in the first place.

What this troubling decline in the NAEP Report Card tells us is that the future adult population, those currently in grade school, is on track to be less informed about our nation’s history than it is today. And today, only one-third of Americans can pass the citizenship test.

Now, of course, eighth grade isn’t the end of a person’s public education. There’s still high school and potentially even college. However, enrollment in history is down at colleges across the nation, especially at the graduate level. Additionally, universities across the country are cutting programs due, in part, to the unprecedented financial burden caused by COVID-19. In the case of Missouri Western State University, that includes several humanities and social sciences such as history, philosophy, and political science. So, where does that leave us? If grade schools are not providing an adequate history education, college students are not enrolling in history courses, and universities are “phasing out” entire history programs, then what? Even though Social Studies was relegated to second-tier status in 2002, due to No Child Left Behind’s increased emphasis on math and reading, the importance of studying history is still as vital as ever, for history is how we come to understand the world around us—culturally, politically, technologically. Therefore, there must be a solution.

Cue History Camp, our annual events that bring together adults from all walks of life, regardless of their profession or occupation, education or degree, or organizational affiliation. The common bond is an interest in learning more about history and sharing what they’ve learned with others.

By the age of 25, these eighth graders from the NAEP Report Card may not know any more about history than they do right now. Few adults today are well-versed in history. That’s the reality we face, and that’s why The Pursuit of History exists. It’s our mission to engage adults in conversations about history and to connect them to historic sites that will help them learn, grow, and become civically engaged citizens. We believe that more people gaining a broader understanding of history has never been more important.