Most eighth-graders are not proficient in geography, a new report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office finds, with just 24 percent of eighth-graders “proficient” in geography in the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress scores.

NAEP testing is a statistical sample only at selected school, and no one school is judged by the results, which means schools are not motivated to teach to the NAEP test. NAEP is widely seen as the gold standard of U.S. educational assessment.

Geography is measured every year. It was measured in 2014 and in 2010, but prior to that the last test was in 2001, and then it reaches back all the way to 1994. Since 1994, things have not changed all that much. The same 24 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in geography then as 20 years later in 2014.

The GAO report found several explanations for the lack of progress, including misconceptions about what geography is, lack of teacher training, poor instructional materials and lack of geographic technology in the classroom.

Narrowed focus

Geography is being shortchanged by a narrow focus on reading and writing, argues Thomas Herman, a geography professor at San Diego State University and a coordinator for the California Geographic Alliance, part of a network of state alliances started in 1986 with the support of National Geographic.

The network’s mission is to help improve geography education in classroom by offering teachers training and curriculum tools to integrate geography. The network also helps nudge policymakers, administrators and teachers to broaden the curriculum, Herman said.

In Herman’s view, the heavy emphasis on standardized testing of reading and math is driving out the content-oriented learning that, ironically, provides the purpose and motivation for those basic skills.

This emphasis actually flies in the face of the new Common Core curriculum, which strongly emphasizes critical thinking, Herman notes. "I see a misalignment between what is being tested and the accountability feedback loop," he said, “which results in overemphasis on ultra-fundamentals.”

"If testing only measures reading and math," he adds, "it doesn't matter what the guidance says about integrated, inquiry-driven learning. The superintendent will only be focused on making the test scores look better.

"Geography offers relevance," Herman said. "We live in a geographically constructed world. Our roles are constructed around geography. Kids are interested in what's going on out there."

Advancing technology

Geography is not about memorizing state capitals," said Rebecca Theobald, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and the coordinator of the Colorado Geographic Alliance.

Ideally, Theobald said, as students get older and gain more content knowledge, they can become knowledge producers, using rapidly advancing geospatial technology, the more rudimentary forms of which are now found on most smartphones.

"Geography is an integrative discipline," Theobald said, "and can be used to shed light on all kinds of social and scientific issues, from politics and economics to hydrology or morphology."

Some students have mapped rat sightings in New York City, while students in the Northwest have mapped pine beetle infestations, Theobald said. Google Earth also offers possibilities. One analysis of the Darfur tragedy, Theobald noted, outlines a map of Sudan with villages that had been burned in the genocide.

At the early grades, Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Fordham Institute, said geography is simply about land forms and earth science — being able to identify continents, rivers and lakes, or understand the difference between desert and tundra.

"A literate person knows what Tundra means,” Pondiscio said, “and when they encounter it in reading, it doesn’t slow them down.”

These concepts build on each other, he continues. A history text may state that “annual flooding in the Nile delta made Egypt a fertile agricultural superpower.” But without some knowledge of geography, that phrase might make little sense to young readers, Pondiscio says.

Content is king

Preoccupation with reading and math scores is self-defeating when those skills are divorced from the content that gives them form and purpose, Pondiscio said.

"Decoding language is a skill," he said, "but reading comprehension is not. Reading comprehension requires shared background knowledge between reader and writer."

After students master basic skills in the early grades, the teacher’s job is to provide content knowledge, and with it the basic skills needed to expand, Pondiscio said.

After basic decoding is mastered, Pondiscio said, "any effort to treat reading as a skill makes things worse, not better. If you are not learning geography, you are not learning to read."

Pondiscio agrees with Herman that, properly understood and implemented, the much-vilified Common Core curriculum is an antidote to the preoccupation with testing. "If I could have one wish," he said, "It’s that every elementary teacher would understand that teaching reading is teaching content."