Colorado

U.S. geography scores disappoint

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

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede