Bloomberg News

U.S. Kids Appear Lost in Latest Study of Geography Knowledge

July 19, 2011

July 19 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. schoolchildren, noses in their smartphones, don’t know the lay of the land.

Only half of fourth graders correctly put the following in descending order of size: North America, the U.S., California and Los Angeles, according to a federal test known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” the Education Department said today.

Less than one-third of elementary and high school students showed proficiency in geography, the Education Department said. Students aren’t learning subjects such as geography and history as teachers spend more time on math and reading to accommodate standardized tests, said Roger M. Downs, a Pennsylvania State University geography professor.

As “classroom time becomes an even more precious and scarce commodity, geography, with subjects such as history and the arts, is losing out in the zero-sum game that results from high- stakes testing,” Downs said in a statement released with the results.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has cited this narrowing of the curriculum in calling for changes before the start of the next school year to the No Child Left Behind law, which ties federal funding to standardized math and reading tests.

On the federal geography test administered last year, about a third of fourth graders could answer a question showing they could determine distance on a map.

‘Lost Art’

Because of students’ dependence on technology, “the ability to read a map seems to be becoming a lost art,” Shannon Garrison, a member of the board overseeing the test, said in a statement.

While fourth graders made gains in achievement since 2001, the last time the test was given, eighth and 12th graders’ scores were little changed.

Shown a picture of tectonic plates near Japan, a third of eighth graders indicated they had no understanding of their relationships to earthquakes. Only 4 percent were able to give two reasons why the U.S. urban population rose sharply from 1800 to 1980.

In the nationally representative sample of public and private schools, 7,000 fourth graders, 9,500 eighth graders and 10,000 12th graders participated in last year’s geography test. The periodic “report cards,” officially called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, measure knowledge of math, reading, science and six other subjects.

Federal tests on history and civics released earlier this year had similar outcomes, showing a “pattern of disappointing results for our 12th graders’ performance across all three social science subjects,” David Driscoll, chairman of the board that administers the test, said in a statement.

‘Unclaimed Subject’

In a bright spot, minorities improved their achievement relative to white students in some cases, said Driscoll, a former Massachusetts education commissioner. Narrowing this “achievement gap” has been a focus of No Child Left Behind, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002.

The rising results for fourth graders, especially among lower-performing students, may have more to do with their improved reading skills than their geography knowledge, said Garrison, a fourth-grade teacher in Los Angeles.

In elementary school, teachers tend to integrate geography into social studies, reading, science and math, Garrison said. In middle and high school, “geography is often the unclaimed subject,” she said.

Geography “provides the context for understanding many of the complex social, political and economic relationships that exist in our world,” said Garrison. “Too many students still fall far short of the knowledge and understanding they need.”

--Editors: Lisa Wolfson, John Lear

To contact the reporter on this story: John Hechinger in Boston at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman at

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