NAEP’s History Lesson

Back in the early 1990s I represented the Organization of American Historians, where I served as Executive Director, on the Steering Committee to develop the U. S. History Framework for the National Assessment of Education Progress test in history. It was an ambitious effort, bringing historians from higher education institutions and professional associations together with public officials from school boards and departments of education around the country, as well as teachers, union leaders, and private citizens from many other walks of life. Public hearings were held in key cities and hundreds of individuals reviewed the document. Not surprisingly the process was sometimes contentious—a staff committee coordinator once jokingly asked us to leave our guns at the door prior to one meeting—because we were being asked to incorporate not only new scholarship but also new ways of thinking about the test. The process ultimately affirmed that the upcoming NAEP history assessment should recognize the complex and necessarily inclusive nature of the study of history and that the test should strike a balance between the current teaching of U.S. history at that time and how it could be improved in the future. In the end, historians were particularly pleased with the inclusion of indicators to measure key skills for studying history: weighing varying kinds of evidence, for example, or establishing cause and effect relationships, along with more traditional themes and chronological periods. For the NAEP history framework see

This week the U.S. Department of Education released results of the 2006 NAEP test in History, proudly asserting that the nation’s students now know more history than ever before. It was the third test developed on the framework described above. While the report noted that performances at all levels—grades 4, 8, and 12—had improved, it found the most dramatic gains—19 points—among the lowest performing fourth graders. Senators Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee issued a joint press released applauding students’ improved performance, while offering the caution that much more needs to be done. The New York Times and others saw the glass as somewhat less than half full, pointing out that while there had been modest gains the data nonetheless demonstrate many deficiencies in students’ competence in history. And the possible impact of No Child Left Behind legislation, which excludes history assessment and is now up for reauthorization, remains a serious concern for many.

Still, there has been progress and there were gains, particularly in the years between the most recent two tests, 2001 and 2006, and it is interesting to speculate on what might be the cause for improvement. For more than a decade now leaders in both government and education have insisted that students’ grasp of history must be strengthened, and a few key people and institutions have done something about it. Since 2001 Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, for example, has been the champion of a new “Teaching American History” grants program which has connected teachers in local school districts with educators in higher education, historical societies and other scholarly institutions in hundreds of professional development seminars around the country, involving thousands of history teachers. Senator Byrd’s program is by far the largest but it is by no means the only ongoing effort to improve history education. At the National Endowment for the Humanities, the “We the People” initiative has for several years now expanded the number of programs available to K-12 teachers, while private sector efforts such as National History Day or the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s summer seminars for teachers or the teaching and student learning resources of The History Channel have reached many others. These programs did not exist in the early 1990s when the framework for the NAEP test in history was created. Are they beginning to make a difference?

The current NAEP history results raise others questions as well. Why have the greatest improvements come at the level of the lowest performing students? Clearly the results show a strong correlation between family wealth/education and higher performance on the test but these categories of students seem not to have made much improvement in their scores. Why not? Nearly all of the 50 states now have history standards in place. What has been their impact of these on test performance? Is there a difference in scores between states that access history and those that do not?

Through the National History Center, an initiative of the American Historical Association, historians are now engaged in a major effort to bring together policy and decision makers to discuss new research on the teaching and learning of history. What teaching strategies work best at different stages of students’ development? What kind of assessments most appropriately measure student learning? What have been the results of new programs and policies regarding history education in the past? What do we know about the current training of history teachers and how can we improve it? What are the best practices for effective professional development for history teachers?

The AHA has begun to address the latter issue in “Benchmarks for Professional Development in the Teaching of History as a Discipline.” The National History Center, in cooperation with the AHA, the National Council for Social Studies, the Newberry Library, and the Organization of American Historians is convening a Conference on History Education Policy in Washington, D. C. on June 12. Interested parties should contact Miriam Hauss at for further information on the conference.

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  1. Kelly Woestman

    We certainly need to explore the causal links to this documented improved performance and the efforts mentioned in this post to continue to improve history education at all levels.

    One important area I’d like us to further discuss is whether including history in NCLB is actually good for history. My concern is that the high stakes testing that is central to NCLB will do too much to reduce history to easily regurgitated facts and dates. I much prefer the non-standardized-test assessments of how students effectively learn history.

    In relation to the observation about 4th grade score results, the elementary teachers who have participated in our Teaching American History grants have emphatically professed and demonstrated that they now teach history “all day long” because they now know more history as a result of active participation in a TAH grant. This 3-year TAH grant – Project eHIKES (ehancing History Instruction for Kansas Educators and Students) that supported their earning an MA in History that incorporated traditional research with a teaching-track emphasis. In other words, this anecdotal evidence further supports the idea that when we learn more history, we can teach more history. In this case, elementary teachers with above-average general pedagogical knowledge were able to apply their existing pedagogical expertise (which often goes unrecognized by those outside their classrooms) to their new knowledge of the discipline of history. These elementary teachers, alongside middle and secondary history teachers who made up the majority of participants in this particular TAH grant, studied the work of Wineburg and VanSledright and others involved in the teaching and learning of history.

    We need to utilize the growing networks of those actively involved in history education created by TAH grants to further study and document what good historical thinking and good history teaching are and provide realistic models of what this all means so that we can continue to document improvement in historical knowledge and historical thinking. Only by all of us working together at all levels of history education can we realize our ultimate goal.