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NCLB Outrages

Students lagging in American history

Ohanian Comment: For those of you who still think Senator Kennedy isn't a big part of the education problem. He wants more money for education--to buy more standardized tests.

Fourth graders can't identify the opening passage of the Declaration of Independence? Let's make it a part of the kindergarten curriculum.

A reader to this list asked why Howard Zinn wasn't asked to testify. Fat chance. McCullough's testimony shows him to be a pompous, self-serving windbag, definitely in the politico comfort zone. Our politicos want kids to parrot the Declaration of Independence and identify it in a multiple choice test--while those politicos continue subverting it and the Constitution.

WASHINGTON -- American students may lag behind their peers abroad in math and science, but their knowledge of their own country's past is just plain pathetic, leading educators and historians told a Senate panel considering legislation that would expand national testing in US history.

National history and civics assessments show that most fourth-graders can't identify the opening passage of the Declaration of Independence, and that most high school seniors can't explain the checks-and-balances theory behind the three branches of the US government. Testifying in favor of proposed legislation, the history specialists -- including renowned historian David McCullough -- told a Senate education subcommittee that most of the country's schoolchildren lack sufficient knowledge to become informed voters and don't understand why they enjoy rights like free speech and freedom of religion.

''I think we are sadly failing our children, and have been for a long time," said McCullough, America's preeminent popular historian and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for biographies of presidents Harry S Truman and John Adams. ''I think to bring testing assessment of performance in the grade schools and high schools of public schools nationwide is long overdue."

The legislation -- introduced in April by senators Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, and Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts -- would budget $14 million for 10 states to test eighth- and 12th-graders in history next year. The pilot program, which would be voluntary, is meant to draw national attention to students' knowledge gaps and put pressure on states to improve their history curriculums.

If enacted, the American History Achievement Act would be the second law in two years aimed at improving students' grasp of American history. Kennedy and Alexander also cosponsored a 2003 law that allotted $25 million to create summer academies for teachers and students of history and civics. Alexander, a former president of the University of Tennessee, also introduced an earlier version of the achievement act last summer, but it stalled in committee.

''You can't be an educated participant in our democracy if you don't know our history," Alexander said, suggesting that as Independence Day approaches, many students might not understand why the day is significant.

The testing would be conducted under the auspices of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal test administered by the US Department of Education. NAEP, often known as ''The Nation's Report Card" because it provides nationwide education data, already conducts assessment tests in history; current law requires that the agency administer the tests to students at least once a decade.

But because the tests take place only sporadically, it is difficult to compare data over time and between states. The Senate legislation calls for the history test to be administered every four years, starting in 2006.

At the hearing yesterday, Charles Smith the executive director of NAEP's governing board, cited testing data from 2001 -- the last year the agency administered the history assessment test -- showing that just 10 percent of high school seniors had an adequate grasp of important people, events, and concepts in American history, such as identifying America's allies and enemies during World War II. One-third of fourth- and eighth-graders and nearly two-thirds of high school seniors did not meet a basic threshold of knowledge.

Particularly disturbing, Smith said, was the data on the performance of minority students: 80 percent of African-Americans and 74 percent of Hispanics did not meet the test's basic competency standards in the 12th grade.

The legislation would stand separately from 2001's landmark No Child Left Behind Act, which requires annual state assessments in reading and math, and federal- administered reading and math tests every two years. Both McCullough and James Parisi, a field representative from the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers & Healthcare Professionals, said they hope that establishing a fund specially earmarked for history assessments will help put the emphasis back on history.

Kennedy pledged to make history testing a requirement under the No Child Left Behind Act when Congress reauthorizes the law in 2007.

— Kaitlin Bell
Boston Globe


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