Editor’s note: This Education Week article is one result of a partnership between EdNews Colorado and the weekly education journal, allowing us to provide in-depth stories from a national perspective.

By Sarah D. Sparks, Education Week

About one in three American 4th graders can read a compass rose well enough to identify basic map regions, and more than half know that the Great Plains has more farming than fishing or mining, according to the latest federal assessment of geography.
Antique world map

That was the good news.

The National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the test, released results this morning for the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress in geography. It found that 4th graders scored on average 213 out of a possible 500, an “all-time high” since the test started in 1994, but the rising scores have not translated to more students moving from “basic” to “proficient” performance on the test, and the percentage of students achieving at the “advanced” level has gone down in every grade.

Similarly, average 8th grade scores are flat at 282, and in 12th grade, average scores have dropped from 285 in 1994 and 2001 to 282 in 2010, a significant decline.

“What we’re starting to do is draw attention to the fact that this is a strategically important issue,” said Daniel Edelson, the vice president of education at the Washington-based National Geographic Society. “This is not the first of the wake-up calls about the state of geography education.”

“The basic story here is that we have not invested in geography education at all in the last decade. Both for workforce preparedness and national security, there are big costs to neglecting geography education,” he said. “You need people who can reason about geographic challenges … people who understand water and energy systems. The more we wait to make these investments, the more we’re going to have to catch up to the rest of the world.”

The geography report is the third this year looking at American students’ social studies knowledge, following civics and history reports released in May and June.“Obviously, these subjects are intertwined. Geography provides the context for all the others,” said Shannon Garrison, a 4th grade teacher in Los Angeles and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP policy.

All three studies paint a mostly lackluster portrait of American students’ social studies proficiency, as well as a small, persistent gender gap across social studies subjects. In geography, boys outperformed girls by 4 to 5 points across grades.

Yet Roger M. Downs, a geography professor at Pennsylvania State University, noted that since 1994, achievement gaps have narrowed between black and white students by 20 points in grade 4 and by 9 points in grade 8.

“These two narrowing gaps remind us that geography is accessible and important to all students, and both groups should have the foundations they need to be informed and productive citizens,” Mr. Downs said in a statement.

Test tried to gauge problem solving

NCES Commissioner Sean P. “Jack” Buckley said the most recent geography assessment tried to go beyond basic recitation of place names to gauge students’ problem-solving abilities and understanding of the connections between physical places and their societies.

Among the findings:

  • Only 4 percent of 8th graders could give two reasons that a graph showed rising urban population and shrinking rural population in the United States over time.
  • One in 10 students in 8th grade could identify the reason early Great Plains settlers built sod houses.
  • Among 12th graders, 59 percent understood that developing countries’ exports are often limited to agricultural products and raw materials rather than manufactured or high-technology products.

The results did not surprise Peggy Altoff, a social studies consultant for Colorado and a past president of the Silver Spring, Md.-based National Council for the Social Studies.

“We know from report after report that social studies is not being tested and is therefore not being taught,” Ms. Altoff said. “States may have strong standards, but without strong legislation to back the teaching of it, I don’t think it’s happening.”

The National Geographic’s Edelson, who studies geography education in the states, said that while every state includes geography content standards, only about 15 actually require that they be taught. Of the 24 states that require high school exit exams, only New York and Virginia require a geography assessment, and another six states require a social studies exam that includes geography topics.

In fact, Edelson, Altoff, and the NAEP governing board’s Garrison argued the 4th grade improvements may have as much to do with gains in basic literacy as in geographic content knowledge.

“I think you will find when you look at the questions, they don’t always require complex knowledge; they just require the students to read the question,” Altoff said.

Yet Buckley, the statistics commissioner, said analyses of students’ recorded class time in the NAEP study, as well as separate staffing and high school transcript studies conducted by the NCES, do not show that the social sciences are getting short shrift in schools.

Extent of geography instruction debated

To the contrary: The percentage of students reporting that they studied geography topics such as natural resources, countries and cultures, and environmental issues at least once a month increased 10 percent or more in each topic from 1994 to 2010. Still, that didn’t seem to matter much for NAEP; the test scores of students who studied those topics at least once a month were statistically no different from the scores of students who studied them “never or hardly ever.”

“There’s not a lot there that can tell me why,” Buckley said. “There’s an increase in the amount of time, and certainly an increase in the credits earned, and yet the scores at the top [grades] are flat, and the scores of the highest-performing kids are declining.”

Penn State’s Downs and Altoff both noted that geography and other social studies are often lumped together in courses, which can reduce students’ ability to form a coherent foundation of knowledge over time.

Last month, the National Science Foundation awarded a two-year, $2.2 million grant to develop a 10-year plan to improve geography education in the United States. The National Geographic Society, the Association of American Geographers, the American Geographical Society, and the National Council for Geographic Education will develop frameworks in instructional materials, teacher education and professional development, geography assessment, and research into geography education. The groups are expected to report on a draft of their plan next spring, with the final version out in September 2012.

In the meantime, social studies in general has fared poorly in the most recent federal budget, with grants for economics and civics education eliminated and a program for U.S. history halved in the fiscal 2011 budget.

In March, citing geotechnology as one of the nation’s three fastest-growing employment fields, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., proposed $15 million in new federal professional-development grants for geography teachers. The Teaching Geography is Fundamental Act, introduced in sister bills in both houses of Congress, has languished in committee, and if history is any indication, isn’t going anywhere; this is the fifth time the program has been proposed.

In Colorado

The NAEP geography test results aren’t broken out by state, but a state education official suspects Colorado scores wouldn’t be much different.

Jo O’Brien, assistant commissioner of assessment, research and evaluation at the Colorado Department of Education, termed the national scores “abysmal” and “extraordinarily low.” She noted that social studies and geography aren’t part of the CSAP testing system, and said, “We just know that it’s unfortunate, but where schools are putting the preponderance of their time is where the exams are; they’re not investing at this point in comprehensive social studies.”

With the introduction of a statewide assessment in that area, O’Brien is sure that will change.

The State Board of Education last December unanimously approved requirements for a new state testing system, including the addition of social studies as a subject that would be tested statewide at least once at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Geography will be one of the four covered, along with history, economics and civics. That is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2014.

“When we turn on a social studies exam, I predict with full-throated confidence that we will have schools that turn their attention to instruction that is keyed to the fundamentals of historical and geographical knowledge and skills,” O’Brien said.

Adding social studies, including geography, to the statewide assessment is a critically important step, said Rebecca Theobald, coordinator at the Colorado Geographic Alliance and an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.

“By not testing social studies at the state level, this allowed the districts in Colorado to put social studies at the bottom of the level of importance for students,” said Theobald.

“And so, by having the state Board of Education saying we will test social studies, that means we will now be starting to ensure that our students will have a better sense of geography, economics, history and civics concepts, that we generally expect students to know when they graduate from high school.”

She added, “Social studies content can be excellent in terms of supporting both math and literacy. There are great opportunities for integrating instruction.”

- Charlie Brennan, EdNews