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October 1, 2002
Vol. 60
No. 2

Research Link / What Do Students Know?

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As the world's population becomes more interconnected and interdependent, students more than ever need to understand our global community. Research can help us reach a consensus on what students should know about the world, how well they know it now, and what changes schools need to make to improve students' global knowledge.

Standards and Requirements

In 1994, the National Council for the Social Studies established a broad set of curriculum standards related to global interdependence and connections among diverse societies. These standards are framed by 10 themes that include common characteristics of different cultures; how the world has changed; world geographic perspectives beyond students' personal locations; and the role of the citizen as a member of the world community (NCSS, 1994).
  • 7 require either world history or world geography;
  • 4 require world history;
  • 5 require world geography; and
  • 15 require a foreign language.

Student Achievement

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which tests a broad cross-section of U.S. students, will not begin testing world history until 2005. Results from the 2001 NAEP geography test show that the percentage of 4th and 8th graders scoring at or above the Basic level had increased since the last assessment in 1994; the percentage remained stable for 12th graders. However, most students still scored at the Basic level in 2001; only two-fifths of 4th graders, three-tenths of 8th graders, and one-fourth of 12th graders reached the Proficient level (NCES, 2001).
  • European History (51,968 candidates)—mean grade was 2.87
  • Human Geography (2,751 candidates)—mean grade was 2.92
The College Board administered an AP exam in World History for the first time in May 2002; results are not yet available.

Reasons for Students' Lack of World Knowledge

Several researchers suggest ineffective practices in global education that may limit students' understanding of the world. For example, Doering (1997) found that a sample of 6th grade students in one school had a low level of world cultural awareness; they knew the physical geographic features of selected regions but not the geographic influence on cultural development. Doering identified many reasons for this narrow view of the world, including the teachers' reliance on a standard world geography textbook that focused predominantly on the physical geographic features of regions. This instructional approach had widened the gap in cultural learning at the school under study.
Bennett (1997) concluded that students did not learn about global issues because many teachers viewed geography as a collection of facts, leading to many geographic misunderstandings. He recommended that geography be integrated throughout the curriculum in literature and thematic instruction.
Johnson (1997) found that many students developed negative attitudes about other cultural groups, viewing behavior that was different from their own as bizarre. Traditional world geography units often reinforced students' misconceptions rather than helping them understand the meaning of other people's behavior. When students learned about different cultural groups, their negative stereotypes about those cultural groups decreased. Moreover, when students studied the culture from the perspectives of the various groups, they developed an appreciation of and respect for the culture.
U.S. students' relatively poor knowledge of world cultures should cause educators some concern. Although new national assessments will give us a better idea of students' global knowledge, we clearly need additional research on how to improve global education practice and find the best methods for increasing students' global understanding.

Bennett, W. (1997). Development of geographic literacy in students with learning disabilities. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 418 034)

College Board, The. (2002). AP scores for all students—Public schools administration. Date: May, 2001 [Online]. Available: http://apcentral.collegeboard.com

Doering, P. (1997). Increasing cultural awareness of sixth grade geography students through the usage of integrated units, literature based instruction, and cooperative learning strategies. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 424 142)

Johnson, P. (1997) Reducing ethnic stereotypes among adolescents with a cultural approach to world geography. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 414 351)

National Center for Education Statistics. (2001). 2001 geography assessment [Online]. U.S. Department of Education. Available: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/geography

National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). Table 153: State requirements for high school graduation. Digest of Education Statistics, 2001. U.S. Department of Education. [Online]. Available: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/digest2001/tables/dt153.asp

National Council for the Social Studies. (1994). Social studies standards [Online]. Available: www.ncss.org/standards

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