GAO: Most Eighth-Grade Students Not Proficient in Geography

October 31, 2015  - By

About three-quarters of eighth grade students — the only grade for which trend data are available — were not “proficient” in geography in 2014, according to a new analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) of nationally representative data from the Department of Education.

Specifically, these students had not demonstrated solid competence in the subject, and the proficiency levels of eighth-grade students have shown no improvement since 1994 (see figure).



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. Further, according to a study by an academic organization, a majority of states do not require geography courses in middle school or high school.

A key challenge to providing geography education is the increased focus on other subjects, according to officials in selected states and K-12 teachers GAO interviewed. These officials and teachers said spending time and resources on geography education is difficult due to national and state focus on the tested subjects of reading, math, and science. GAO’s interviews and review of relevant reports identified a range of other challenges, as well, including:

  • misconceptions about what geography education entails;
  • lack of teacher preparation and professional development in geography;
  • poor quality of geography instructional materials; and
  • limited use of geographic technology in the classroom.

The Department of Education’s role with respect to geography education primarily involves assessing student performance in the subject, and providing data and the results of its analyses to the public. The Department of Education periodically assesses student achievement in geography, and other areas, but not with the same regularity as other subjects it is required by law to assess. Beyond assessments, department officials said that absent funding specifically for geography-focused programs, the agency is hindered in its ability to support geography education.

GAO conducted the study because geography — the study of places and the relationship between people and their environment — is present across many facets of modern life, from tracking lost cell phones to monitoring disease outbreaks such as Ebola. The growing use of geographic information and location-based technology across multiple sectors of the American economy has prompted questions about whether K-12 students’ skills and exposure to geography are adequate for current and future workforce needs.

Senate Report 113-71 included a provision for GAO to report on the status of geography education and challenges elementary and secondary schools face in providing geography education with limited resources.

In this report, GAO examined

  1. the extent that eighth grade students are proficient in geography;
  2. the challenges selected school officials and teachers face in providing geography education; and
  3. the role of the Department of Education with respect to geography education.

GAO reviewed relevant federal laws; analyzed nationally representative Department of Education  data on student proficiency and instruction time in geography; interviewed education officials in four states selected, in part, for varying K-12 geography requirements; reviewed key studies and research reports, including a 50-state 2013 survey of geography requirements; and interviewed agency officials and researchers. The GAO also leveraged a professional association to identify and interview 10 K-12 teachers.

View a PDF of the report here.

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About the Author: Tracy Cozzens

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.