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History Teachers Blame NCLB For Low Test Scores Even Though Scores Are Up

The 2002 No Child Left Behind law encourages schools to focus on teaching the core subjects of reading and math, which critics have long alleged would lead to dangerous shortfalls in other subjects. So with new NAEP scores out showing that American children don’t know much about history, the critics are claiming vindication:

History advocates contend that students’ poor showing on the tests underlines neglect shown the subject by federal and state policy makers, especially since the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act began requiring schools to raise scores in math and reading but in no other subject. The federal accountability law, the advocates say, has given schools and teachers an incentive to spend less time on history and other subjects.

But wait a minute! History test scores are actually up, especially in the demographic sub-segments most impacted by NCLB and especially among the younger cohorts of students most impacted by NCLB testing mandates:

While changes in the overall averages were microscopic, there was significant upward movement among the lowest-performing students — those in the 10th percentile — in fourth and eighth grades and a narrowing of the racial achievement gap at all levels. On average, for instance, white eighth-grade students scored 274 on the latest test, 21 points higher than Hispanic students and 23 points above black students; in 2006, white students outperformed Hispanic students by 23 points and black students by 29 points.

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As it happens, I agree with history advocates that we’re seeing the impact of the accountability law. What we’re seeing, in particular, is that trying to teach history to kids who can’t read is a fool’s errand. Focusing more clearly on making sure that kids aren’t falling behind in their core skills is helping the worst-off kids do better across the board even at history.