GAO: 73% of 8th Graders Don’t Know Much About Geography

Barbara Hollingsworth | October 20, 2015 | 1:30pm EDT
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Classroom globe, circa 1960, advertised on Etsy.

( –Seventy-three percent of American eighth graders tested below the proficiency level in geography last year, according to a report to Congress by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Analyzing nationally representative test data from the U.S. Department of Education, GAO found that only 27 percent of eighth graders nationwide scored at either the proficient (24%) or advanced (3%) level on standardized geography tests in 2014.

Nearly half (48%) exhibited only partial mastery of the subject, and a quarter (25%) scored below basic competency on the geography tests.

The 2014 results showed virtually no improvement since 1994, when 4 percent of eighth graders tested at the advanced level, 24 percent at the proficient level, 43 percent at the basic level, and 29 percent were below basic competency, the GAO reported, even as Americans become increasingly dependent on location-based technologies such as GPS (global positioning system).

“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,” the report to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Humans Services, Education, and Related Agencies stated.

Although “research suggests that K-12 education is critically important for learning the fundamentals of geography,” GAO’s analysis of teacher survey data found that geography skills - “such as spatial dynamics and connections, use of maps and globes, and other countries and cultures” – were typically taught just “one or twice a month.”

Even though geography is defined as one of 10 core academic subjects in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), states do not have to include it in their mandatory assessments.

As a result, educators said they were under “pressure to emphasize other subjects” such as math, reading, and science, and that “allocating resources for geography education was challenging in the face of greater national and state focus on tested subjects.”

However, the lack of proficiency in geography among three quarters of eighth graders is worrisome because the need for future workers who have advanced geographic skills is increasing.

“According to the Department of Labor, employment of specialists in geography, or geographers, is projected to grow 29 percent from 2012 to 2022 – much faster than the average 11 percent growth for all occupations,” the GAO report noted.

“Among the many activities that can depend on analysis of geospatial data are maintaining roads and other critical transportation infrastructures, quickly responding to natural disasters…and tracking endangered species,” it stated.

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