Few are proficient in geography

Fourth graders know more geography, eighth graders are about the same and 12th graders are losing ground, according to the Nation’s Report Card: Geography 2010 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Fewer than one third of students are proficient.

In geography, civics and U.S. history, achievement is stagnating or declining, NAEP advises.

“In particular, the pattern of disappointing results for our twelfth graders’ performance across all three social science subjects should be of great concern to everyone,” said David P. Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP.

The lowest-scoring students made gains at all three grade levels, and some racial/ethnic achievement gaps narrowed.

A proficient fourth grader can recognize what prevents soil erosion, a proficient eighth grader can explain the effects of a monsoon in India and a proficient 12th grader can explain why Mali is considered overpopulated.

Some of the 12th grade questions are challenging:

The diagram shown is a profile of a content from West to East (shown in miles) and elevation (showed in feet or height off of the ground). In the West, the elevation starts at 0, and quickly rises to its maximum elevation of 23,000 feet approximately 750 miles inland. After the this high point, the elevation drops steadily back to 0 at the most easternmost point of the continent, approximately 3,260 miles from the westernmost point of the continent.

The diagram above shows a profile of which continent?

  1.   Europe
  2.   South America
  3.   Antarctica
  4.   Africa

I got it right, but it was an educated guess.

Go here for sample questions.

This map of The World According to Americans represents the way many of us were taught as children, writes Lynne Diligent.

These maps are about feelings rather than knowledge, writes Diligent, who lives overseas.

I used to play a geography game with my father. I’d close my eyes, spin the globe and point to a place. He’d tell me about it. I loved the sound of “Addis Ababa” and “Haile Selassie,” the Lion of Judah.  Later, I played a German game, Weltreise, that taught me the best air, rail and shipping routes. My favorite was Montevideo to Kapstadt (Capetown) to Adelaide by boat.

About Joanne


  1. I just took the NAEP sample questions tests in 4th, 8th, and 12th grade geography. I missed one question on the 12th grade sample, but getting 14 out of 15 correct and not having gone to public school since I graduated in 1981 is pretty good, compared to the results that most of our high school students are getting.

  2. I think that the most difficult question out of all of the samples was the 4th-grade steel mill question!

  3. That wasn’t hard for me, but the what continent had the 23,000 I wound up missing, but in reality, these are questions that any high school or college graduate should be able to score at least 75% or higher on.

  4. “…educated guess”

    the key word here is “educated”. Without it your score is just a random statistical result.

    I had to pause on that one question to eliminate other possible candidates before getting it right.

  5. I got them all right.

    Of course, I teach geography.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I got them all right, too.

    But true to form for these sorts of things, a lot of the sample questions are absolutely horrible. Particularly the 4th grade ones.

    Grade 4:
    1) “Probably”? Just ask whether it looks like a farm, a ranch, a factory, or whatnot. Don’t ask the kids to guess what the people who work there “probably” do — for all we know, five of them are farmers and the other 7 are running an online gambling operation. Or maybe the people in there “probably” make their living running a Farm-Implement museum and field tour.

    2) “Small town” is ridiculously vague, but the question isn’t terrible — just mediocre.

    3) This question is absurd — the “right” answer seems to hold that the CAUSAL REASON for the lack of billowing smoke is the laws, which has some truth, I suppose, but the laws by themselves are fairly causally inefficacious. Perhaps the causal reason is the development of cleaner technologies? The general law-abidingness of the American people?

    The thing about this question is that the wrong answers are so obviously wrong (well, A is wrong, but plausible) that it’s obvious which one the test makers WANT the student to choose. But the right answer should be right and not just “less bad”, and the fact that it’s encouraging students to think of laws as the best way to effect change, well… nuts.

    4) This question isn’t so bad — but like the preceding one, it’s got an obnoxiously environmentalist bent. Why isn’t the right answer “Building good drainage systems” or “excellent landscape engineering” (which might INCLUDE planting trees)?

    5) Once again, the right answer should actually be right — not just the least sucky. Capitals are sometimes selected for convenient access, sure, but whether the “central location” (which, if you look at the map, is hardly a strong trend) is going to be the accessible point is going to depend entirely on the geography of the state. Financial and political issues also went into establishing state capitals — Sacramento was the capital because at the time California became a state, it was a transport hub for the gold rush (at least that’s how I learned it). I imagine most of the other states have some sort of similar story. (I seem to recall that Michigan’s story involved foiling Detroit somehow, but that was a LONG time ago.)

    The 8th grade questions are all pretty good, actually. I bet they weren’t written by the same jerks who did the 4th grade questions.

    Grade 12:

    2) “Worldwide, the greatest number of people who emigrate from one country to another today do so because they…”

    What a horribly worded question! What is should say is:

    “The most popular motivation for emigration from one country to another in the last few years has been…”

    Because otherwise, you’re tempted to read it as asking what the reason is for the largest coherent group of people who emigrated recently — and I have no idea what that group might be. Maybe some recent African civil war displaced a few million people? I don’t know. Neither would most people who read the question that way.

    3) Really? Drought and starvation… women hardest hit?

    4) “The diagram above shows a profile…”

    What KIND of profile? Is it a cross section? If so, at what latitude? Is it merely a representation of the highest points at every particular longitude?

    5) I might want a “usually” in this question somewhere, or maybe “according to standard meteorological models” or something. But it’s OK. (I confess to not understanding really what this question is asking, and having answered it correctly based on watching the beginning of Groundhog Day; but I’m sure it has something do to with what’s covered in courses. Not any course *I* ever took, mind you, but courses somewhere.)

  7. I got them all right, too. Of course, with multiple choice the key is to make educated guesses by eliminating the ones that are obviously wrong or just plain silly. I would be more concerned for students who lack the logic skills to identify the obviously wrong/silly answers (i.e., women have larger families in a drought).

  8. I missed the last one on the Grade 12 sample. Why doesn’t crossing the Great Lakes cool the air? We used to live on a town that was on the S.F. Bay and now live inland and it’s warmer here because we don’t get the cool breezes coming off the water.

  9. Mark Roulo says:

    Why doesn’t crossing the Great Lakes cool the air?

    I have a guess … the water in the Great Lakes acts as a gigantic heat sink (large bodies of water everywhere do this … including the SF Bay). In December, the air coming from the north is colder than the water (which won’t get colder than 32 degrees F), so the water can’t cool the air.

    In June, I expect that the air would be cooled…

  10. Crimson Wife, in early December, the lakes (esp at the higher latitudes along the line connecting the dots shown in the diagram) are warmer than the average/typical air temperature.

    The lakes have completely frozen over many times in the past 200-300 years, but probably hardly ever as early as early December.

  11. Okay, that makes sense. I’m surprised that would be on a geography quiz because it seems more like an Earth Science type question. At the high school I attended, students on the honors track did not take that particular course so my knowledge of the subject is rather spotty.

  12. Kind of a shame they didn’t take Earth Science in high school, I learned a lot in my 9th grade Earth Science class…How to make a contour map (we did this by each lab group having a large plastic container with a large plastic mountain in it, fill the container nearly full of water until you had just the peak sticking out a bit), then we put a clear lid on the container, then used onion skin paper to trace the outline of the part sticking out…next day, we let some water out via a valve, and traced a new outline, after about 2 weeks, we had a pretty decent looking contour map.

    Good stuff Earth Science (and the way we did it, it qualified as a laboratory science) 🙂

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    I live forty-two yards from Lake Michigan, on the Michigan side.
    The way it works is this: If the wind is from the west, it is cooler in the summer. I once took a ferry from a Wisconsin port on a blistering August day. By the time we were five miles off shore, even sitting in the sun was uncomfortably cold.
    This is in the summer.
    When approaching the shore from the east, God turns on the AC about two miles inland, if there’s a west wind.
    In the fall, when the air is cold, going over the lake adds a degree or two. Once the ice is out a couple of miles, the difference is minimal.
    I know actually living here is not quite quite when dealing with educators, but what are they going to do to me?

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    Oh, yeah. The less the kids know about such things, the easier it is to fool them. See AGW. See multiculti.

  15. Why on earth would any of you well-read people think your ability to answer all the questions was indicative of anything other than top 20%? Keerist. Almost everyone here is a college graduate. One would frigging hope you could answer them all. Could you possibly be more clueless, and thus completely incapable of determining what an average 12th grader–who will *not* graduate from college–can answer?


  16. I believe the NAEP’s analysis shows that if the high school students don’t know much geography, it’s a pretty safe bet that many college students not much older than these students are right now don’t know very much geography either.

    Being a college graduate in many cases just means you were stubborn enough to stick out a program of study and conferred a degree for it.

  17. I feel sure you think you have a point?

  18. Jeez..someone get Cal some prunes….

  19. Cranberry says:

    When do schools teach geography?

    Geography, civics, US history, (we don’t test world history??) — all this, and more, is supposed to be covered by “social studies,” I suppose. There’s not enough time to cover multiculturalism, activist history, and global warming, as well as geography, civics, and US history. Oh, yes, don’t forget what used to be called Current Events.

    I refuse to declare widespread ignorance on subjects not taught in schools a crisis of education. IF the subjects were taught in schools, I’d be more worried.

    What subjects must be taught, to whom, when—those are all political questions. I don’t think we’ll see Geography resusitated as an independent requirement any time soon.

  20. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I gave the fourth grade test to my second grader. The steel mill question really tripped her up because we live in Northwest Indiana and see mills belching smoke every time we drive to Chicago! So she decided the answer was A because “people’s jobs are going to China.” (Note–that wasn’t what WE told her, but it’s in the air around here.)

    The “small town” question was one she figured out, but she was torn between airport and movie theatre because in her experience small towns have neither.

    She’s right– I’m sure test makers would consider our town a small town, but technikcally (according to geographers) it’s a small city. And towns that actually MEET the population definitions of a ‘small town’ are lucky if they have a GROCERY STORE, much less a movie theater! (Though they all have libraries and playgrounds around here. )

    The fourth grade questions were very poorly written…… And actually, most farmers I’ve met actually make their LIVING off of manufacturing— the farm isn’t really a big profit center…..

    Do test writers ever experience reality?

  21. Richard Aubrey says:

    Said it before. When my kids were in el ed, there was a third grade and fifth grade science curriculum that gave them fits. I took the tests, provided by the textbook company. The more you know, the harder the test. The teacher agreed that her better students had more trouble with the curriculum. Then she smiled at me, brilliantly and dismissively, making it clear that nothing was going to change.
    Point is, apparently, there is no school of good test design and no penalties for lousy test design. So, when you see a test like this, the folks doing it are probably the same old losers.

  22. “I refuse to declare widespread ignorance on subjects not taught in schools a crisis of education. IF the subjects were taught in schools, I’d be more worried.”

    Indeed. I got a 100%, 100% and an 80% and 95% of the material on the three tests never came up in my public school career. I was mainly just using life experience/stuff I picked up here and there/educated guessing. Interestingly, the one question (the map projection one) that I know we covered in high school, I didn’t remember the correct answer to. There’s no way in heck I ever learned the elevations of the continents. I’m getting a whiff of “critical thinking” off the geography questions, which is what makes them so guessable.

    About the small town question–I just realized that my own home town (population under 10,000) has an “international” airport (it’s tiny, but Canada’s really close) but the movie theater closed 20 years. Kids from my town would have blown that one.

  23. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Amy– Heck– there are “international” airports in all sort of out of the way places– all it takes is a regular airline that goes to the Mexico or Caribbean and poof! “We’re international!”

    Meanwhile, at least in the midwest, chains like Kerasotes have been buying up small town theaters and shutting them down so that movie watchers have to drive 35 minutes up the road to the super-dooper-3D-megaplex with tickets 3* the price of the old theater’s.

    Maybe the test is just about discerning what coastal preconceptions assume is true about ‘flyover country?’ The kids just need to ask themselves “What would a new yorker assume?”

  24. The test seems cleverly designed to be easy to take. So many of the wrong answers were ludicrous. Anyone can pass a subject with questions like this;

    How high is Mt. Everest?

    A) It’s below sea level
    B) More than six miles high
    C) A flower
    D) Blue

    I consider myself terrible at geography and I got all of the questions right. A real geography question would be:

    What countries border Nepal? (check all that apply)

    That test I would flunk.

  25. “…all it takes is a regular airline that goes to the Mexico or Caribbean and poof! “We’re international!””

    I don’t think you need even that. My hometown airport just has private planes, and they still call themselves an international airport.

  26. Richard Aubrey says:

    Amy. I think that means a flight from abroad can land there and a customs guy–if they can find one–will beon hand to do the honors.

  27. Richard Aubrey says:

    Actually, Americans, adults at least, learn a lot of geography. Going on seventy years ago, many learned about Europe, North Africa, the Pacific, the Pacific Rim. After that, it was some little pimple off China. Then it was Southeast Asia, and then the Middle East/South Asia.
    We learn it when it’s necessary, or of more than casual interest, anyway.

  28. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I also found the “state capitals near the center of the state” question hilarious, because it draws your attention to the fact that so many state capitals are NOT at the center!

    On the other hand, I’ve been giving my daughter a selection of sample standardized test questions recently, just so she can learn how not to over think.

    “How am I supposed to know what the author WANTED to tell me about taking care of a goldfish? All I know is what she DID tell me, Mom!”

  29. Bill Leonard says:

    Interesting comments so far My own ciriticisms tend to mirror those of Michael Lopez — particularly re: the wording of a great many of the questions.

    On Q. 1. of the 4th grade test, for instance, the big clues for the answer would seem to be, first, the grain silos, then the barn. BUT: I live in the urban San Francisco Bay Area, and I would bet that not all that many 4th-graders here would recognize the grain silos — unless specifically coached and taught about them in anticipation of the test — simply because silos of any kind are not typically found on the farms and ranches in this state. The main types of agriculture are different..

    Ditto Q. 5. on the 4th-grade sample test. It may well be that state capitals are in roughly the center of the state, but that’s not thereason, traditionally, for their location. From colonial times on, towns and cities and even state capitals tended to be located on navigable bodies of water. There are exceptions — Arizona and Nevada come to mind — particularly in the southwest. Again, I have no way of knowing what material was taught, and how, in preparation for this test.


  30. “From colonial times on, towns and cities and even state capitals tended to be located on navigable bodies of water.”

    Very good point.

  31. Mark Roulo says:

    I would bet that not all that many 4th-graders here would recognize the grain silos — unless specifically coached and taught about them in anticipation of the test…

    My guess is that the 4th grade geography topics include (or are supposed to include) recognizing things like farms, factories, sky scrapers, airports, railroads, etc.

    It seems kinda strange to me to include this in geography, but if you assume that you want it covered in/by 4th grade, you need to put it somewhere …

  32. Mark Roulo says:

    I think that farms are supposed to be covered in the “Place” theme of the “five themes of geography.”

    See here: http://geography.about.com/od/teachgeography/a/5themes.htm

    A more current framework (with more items) is here:


    Items (4), (11), (12), and (14) might cover farms.

  33. Cranberry says:

    Richard Aubrey:

    “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” — Ambrose Bierce

  34. Richard Aubrey says:

    I read the Devil’s Dictionary, and Maxims for Men at Arms both several times and that doens’t ring a bell. But it’s somethingn he would have said.
    Yeah. Don’t complain that Americans can’t find your country on a map. That’s a Good Thing.

  35. RE: the farm question. My children regularly encounter “information” about what the text book writers think about farms. We are farmers, we live on a farm. However, we live in California and everytime the farm “information” comes home, we have a discussion about prejudice and misconceptions.

    For what it is worth, I got a 100 percent on all the questions. However, sheep grazing can be a part of a rangeland management program designed to reduce erosion.

  36. Bill Leonard says:

    Jane, I suspect that textbook writers overwhelmingly know little or nothing about farming, or, probably, much of anything else except life in academia.

    And, you are being kind in labeling the “information” a matter of prejudice and misconception. In recent decades, the material has been about indoctrination much of the time.

  37. CarolineSF says:

    Mother Jones on the same topic.


    Why is it that we love “our kids are morons” alarmist hysteria? This is just like those repeated surveys that show that most Americans think our public schools in general are failing, but almost none think their OWN kids’ school is failing.

    Is there any other culture that loves to assail its own children as morons based on dubious, “check it and lose it” reporting?

  38. Bill,

    The misinformation about an industry I know about, makes me question the accuracy of any of the information presented in social science textbooks. And, it has been going on for a long time. I remember a social science class in high school that informed my class that my parent’s ranch didn’t exist.

    At best, these text books teach some kids not to believe everything they read and that people speak with authority about subjects of which they know nothing. Still, that is not a bad thing to learn.

    After all, a few years ago, one of my children brought home some material that stated that people on the coast tend to make their living in fishing. We live in California….people along the coast are more likely to be in finance and entertainment.

  39. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Ummm…. very few people ANYWHERE in the US are “likely” to be fishermen. Maybe in a sustenance economy elsewhere in the world, but….

    I lived on the East Coast for years and NEVER met a professional fisherman!!

  40. Deirdre Mundy says:

    On the other hand, this is why I teach my kids history and not “Social Studies.” And we do a fair bit of Geography, but more of the CIA Factbook stuff. (When we read a folktale from a country, the kids want to know all about where it came from. So we use folktales to teach geography! It’s actually working quite well, and since I’m a bit of a folklore nut, I don’t mind raiding the 398.2’s every time we hit the library. 🙂

  41. Bill Leonard says:

    Deirdre, I think you will find millions of sport fishermen of one kind or another in this country. But you are absolutely right about commercial fishing. I’m just guessing, but I’d be surprised if there were more than 15,000 people in this country making a living from commercial fishing (the number would not include associated industries such as canning and tourism).


  42. That is a pretty good guess, Bill–the BLS says there were 35,600 commercial fisherman/boat operators in 2008.