Font Size: 
Indicator I-3 Knowledge of U.S. History
NOTE TO READERS: Please include the following reference when citing data from this page: "American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators,".
Back to Section I-A
Updated (8/15/2011).

See the
Note on the Difference between NAEP "Achievement" and "Performance" Levels.

Although it was introduced later and is given less frequently than the reading assessment, the NAEP for U.S. history also supplies data describing change over time in students’ knowledge of a core humanities subject. (For information on state policies regarding the teaching of history at the precollegiate level, consult the National History Education Clearinghouse’s January 2012 update to its 2010 Report on the State of History Education .) Figure I-3 depicts fourth, eighth and 12th graders’ U.S. history achievement in 2010 compared to that in 1994. Over this period, the percentage of students in the two lower grades demonstrating at least basic achievement in the subject increased by a statistically significant margin. No measurable difference exists between the 1994 and 2010 U.S. history achievement of high school seniors.

Figure I-3, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

The greatest change over time was observed between the two cohorts of fourth graders. In 2010, 73% of all students in this grade demonstrated at least basic knowledge of U.S. history, up from 64% in 1994. In addition, fourth graders proved to be the most knowledgeable, in that a greater proportion of these students demonstrated at least basic achievement in U.S. history than did students in either of the two other age groups (in both testing years).

Figure I-3 shows that in both 1994 and 2010 the older the cohort the lower the proportion of students demonstrating at least basic knowledge. U.S. history achievement is most dramatically lower in high school. In 2010, for example, 69% of middle schoolers demonstrated at least a basic understanding of U.S. history, while only 45% of high schoolers did so.

In addition to examining the trends both over time and across school grades, the cross-sectional picture should be considered: in both 1994 and 2010, the majority of American school-age children demonstrated minimal knowledge of the nation’s history. The absence of long-term trend data prevents a systematic evaluation of how recent a phenomenon this is, but research reveals that young people’s ignorance of U.S. history has been a source of public concern since the beginning of the 20th century.1

(The NAEP Data Explorer permits analysis of these assessment data by gender, ethnicity, and a number of other key variables. For both an overview of Explorer and tips for its effective use, see The Explorer itself is located at

1 Sam Wineburg, “Crazy for History,” Journal of American History, vol. 90, no. 4 (March 2004): 1401–1414.

Note on the Difference between NAEP "Achievement" and "Performance" Levels

Figures I-1a, I-1b, and I-1c display the percentages of students scoring at certain levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s (NAEP) long-term trend reading assessment. This NAEP examination is scored differently from the other NAEP tests, such as those in writing, history, and civics, and the “main” NAEP reading assessment (for an explanation of the differences between the two NAEP reading assessments, see

On the latter exams, students are assessed according to grade-specific achievement scales. A student’s level of achievement is judged to be “below basic,” “basic,” “proficient,” or “advanced” depending on his or her score on the appropriate scale. A score at the “basic” level indicates that a student has demonstrated partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade. A score of “proficient” indicates solid academic performance—students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter. An “advanced” score represents superior performance. A child scoring at the “advanced” achievement level on the 12th-grade exam in a given subject area is demonstrating different skills than a fourth grader scoring at the “advanced” level.

In contrast, the NAEP long-term trend reading assessment uses a single scale, referred to as a performance scale, for 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds. What constitutes “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced” performance depends on the age of the examinee. Both a 9-year-old and a 17-year-old may score at Level 250 (able to interrelate ideas and make generalizations). Such a score would constitute an advanced level of performance on the part of the 9-year-old and a basic level of performance on the part of the 17-year-old.

Back to Content

Back to Top

Skip Navigation Links.  

View figures and graphics: