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Jobs-focused education leaves history in the dustbin

New test scores on history and civics reveal how little American students know their nation's past. Yet such knowledge is essential for active citizens.

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A society can make progress only if its young people know of the progress their country has made so far. In America, that means fourth-graders should be able to identify Abraham Lincoln – only 9 percent can. High school seniors must know about the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling Brown v. Board of Education – only 2 percent do.

Such statistics are particularly worrisome because today’s 12th-graders will be able to vote in next year’s elections.

Most of these fledgling citizens and future leaders haven’t fared well on a national “report card” issued every few years about how well students grasp civics and history.

In the latest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, just 12 percent of high school seniors are proficient in US history while 24 percent measure up in civics. And of all the subjects tested under NAEP since 1994 – math, reading, science, writing, geography, civics, history – students do the worst in history.

In the 2010 test, some progress was found among eighth-graders, especially blacks and Hispanics, since 2006. And ever since the NAEP began in 1994, fourth-graders have shown a healthy gain in history scores. But that may reflect improvements in reading skills, experts say.

By the 12th grade, students score the worst on history compared with earlier grades, with more than half not reaching even basic knowledge. (The test categories for history include democracy, culture, technology, and the US role in the world.)

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