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73 Percent of 8th Graders Test Below Proficient Level in Geography

A new report sent to Congress reveals that three quarters of American eighth graders tested below proficiency level in geography last year.

Additionally, the report finds that little time is spent on geography instruction in America’s schools.

Presented by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the report was sent to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) tracks students’ knowledge and understanding of geography as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

According to the GAO’s analysis of data from the Department of Education, “About three-quarters of eighth grade students—the only grade for which trend data are available—were not “proficient” in geography in 2014.”

Only a 277 percent of eighth graders nationwide scored at either the proficient (24 percent) or advanced (3 percent) level on standardized geography tests, while 48 percent demonstrated only partial mastery and 25 percent scored below basic competency in the subject.

The results continue a trend, as shown by the fact that since the geography assessment was first administered in 1994, average test scores among eighth graders have remained flat and below proficient for all students for 20 years.

GAO continues:

Specifically, these students had not demonstrated solid competence in the subject, and the proficiency levels of eighth grade students have shown no improvement since 1994…Geography is generally taught as part of social studies, but data show that more than half of eighth grade teachers reported spending a small portion (10 percent or less) of their social studies instruction time on geography. Further, according to a study by an academic organization, a majority of states do not require geography courses in middle school or high school.

The report emphasizes that geography education has been cast aside in favor of other subjects – primarily reading, math, and science – which are the focus of national and state tests. Additional challenges include general misconceptions about the content of geography education, lack of teacher preparation in geography, poor geography instructional materials, and limited geography technology in the classroom.

“Currently in elementary and middle grades, geography content is often combined and taught with history, civics, and economics, under the umbrella of ‘social studies,’” states GAO, adding that it “can be taught with other subjects, such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

GAO also notes the Department of Labor states employment of geography specialists is expected to grow 29 percent from 2012 to 2022.

As the report observes, geography is “one of 10 core academic subjects as defined in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA),” the latest version of which is the federal No Child Left Behind law. States are not required to test in the area of geography, however. What is unclear is whether the report will be used to simply highlight the need for greater emphasis on geography instruction in the classroom or to bolster a political agenda for further nationalized standards and tests.

“NCES plans to test 12th grade students in the next geography assessment, and officials told us it is important to assess the geography skills students have upon leaving high school,” reports GAO. “In addition, officials said if funding allows, that the 2018 geography NAEP will be digitally based and administered on tablets.”

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