25 American History Facts Most Students Don’t Know

This Fourth of July, while you’re busy with barbecue and fireworks, you just might find yourself feeling a bit patriotic and proud of our country’s history. But how much do you really know about it? If you’re anything like today’s students, you don’t know much at all. We’ve discovered 25 essential American History facts that students struggle with, and the results are a bit worrying.

  1. Abraham Lincoln’s significance as the 16th President of the United States:

    Education Overtime visited the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C., and asked students why President Lincoln was important to America. One student answered that his beard made him important; another said he was killed at a puppet show. Few were able to explain his leadership and role in the American Civil War.

  2. George Washington’s significance:

    If kids can’t identify why Lincoln was important, you’d at least think they can understand why our very first president was an important leader. Nope. In the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 23% of fourth graders were able to point out his status as the first U.S. President, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, participation in the Constitutional Convention, or his role in the French and Indian War. Twenty-four percent entered inappropriate responses, 45% got partial credit, and 7% didn’t even try to answer at all.

  3. The best presidents in history:

    Surely, a selection of the best U.S. presidents is a subjective one, but a 2008 Harris poll revealed that the public’s perception is totally off base. It turns out that students and the general public are much more likely to list those with which they’re familiar from their own lifetime, rather than true “greatness.” When measured against the lists that most historians provide, they are completely different.

  4. When the American Civil War Occurred:

    In a 2007 telephone sample, students were asked if the American Civil War occurred in the half-century between 1850-1900. Only 43% identified this period as the correct one. This is, however, an improvement upon 1986 numbers: during a survey in that year, only 32% answered the question correctly.

  5. What happened at the Constitutional Convention:

    In a Newsweek quiz, an incredible number of Americans were not able to pass the basic citizenship quiz. Perhaps the most alarming of these questions was, “What happened at the Constitutional Convention?” This one is so baffling because the answer is right in the question!

  6. Who our World War II Allies were:

    In a multiple choice question, many students were unable to pick out the Soviet Union as an ally of the U.S. in WWII. This was in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam that fewer than 20% of American fourth and eighth graders showed more than a basic knowledge on.

  7. The authors of the Federalist Papers:

    In Newsweek‘s U.S. citizenship test, few were able to identify the authors of The Federalist Papers. In fact 88% of respondents got the question wrong, failing to share the names of even one of the authors Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.

  8. The American Revolutionary War allowed the U.S. to gain independence:

    The Lunch Scholars video from a Washington State high school reveals just how bad things really are in the history department: not one student on the video was able to identify the American Revolutionary War as the war in which American gained independence. Not without a hint, anyway.

  9. The role of women as shopkeepers and farmers during the American Revolution:

    When asked what role many colonial women played during the American Revolution, many students weren’t able to correctly answer that women kept farms and shops running during the war: 54% of fourth graders answered incorrectly.

  10. What the Bill of Rights guarantees:

    The Bill of Rights gives Americans a set of unalienable rights, if only we could remember what they are. A third of students don’t know that the Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom of speech and religion.

  11. Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas, Jamestown was founded before the Constitution was written, and Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation:

    When asked to assign these major historic events to a timeline, only 19% of fourth graders were able to correctly assign all four of them. Four percent didn’t even try.

  12. North Korea’s ally in the Korean War:

    In the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, nearly 80% of 12th graders selected the wrong answer when asked which country was North Korea’s ally in fighting the U.S. during the Korean War. Even worse, it was a multiple choice question, allowing students to choose between the Soviet Union, Japan, China, and Vietnam.

  13. The purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition:

    In 2010, fourth graders were given a map of U.S. expansion and asked to identify why Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their expedition. Fifty percent of students were unable to correctly identify that they were sent to gather information about lands for settlement.

  14. The rights that are protected by the First Amendment:

    In a question that shared a passage from the First Amendment, students were asked which right it protects. Fifty-five percent of students failed to identify the correct answer as the right to hold public meetings, instead choosing answers including the right to a prompt trial, to a jury of one’s peers, and to vote regardless of race or color.

  15. How Native Americans were affected by European settlers:

    It seems that students have a hard time understanding the impact that settlers had on Native Americans: only 8% of fourth grade students answered this question correctly on the 2010 NAEP. Thirty-nine percent of students shared inappropriate responses, and 32% only received partial credit.

  16. African-American slaves gained their freedom after the Civil War:

    In the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, fourth graders were asked what changed for African-Americans in the South after the Civil War. Thirty-five percent of students were unable to correctly identify freedom for slaves, instead answering that they returned to Africa, started their own plantations, or became governors. Three percent of students didn’t answer at all.

  17. What JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech meant:

    Although 50% of fourth graders were able to identify that JFK’s “Ask not” speech was intended to encourage citizens to put their skills to work for the U.S., another 50% did not. Forty-eight percent of students got the answer incorrect, and 2% omitted the question.

  18. Why the Pilgrims wanted to leave England:

    When asked why the Pilgrims wanted to leave England in the 2010 NAEP, only 43% of fourth graders answered the question correctly, identifying religious persecution. Most of the responses were wrong, with 55% incorrect, and 2% who failed to enter a response.

  19. How machines and factories changed American work:

    Students were asked to identify how work changed for Americans due to machines and factories, and correct responses included: people worked faster, machines did work people used to do, people worked more outside of the home, and people made parts instead of whole products. Only 11% of fourth graders filled in complete, correct answers. A whopping 10% of students omitted the question entirely.

  20. When Columbus sailed:

    Elementary school kids often learn that in 1492, “Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” but it seems they’re not remembering. More than a quarter of students think that Columbus sailed after 1750.

  21. The purpose of the Declaration of Independence:

    Fourth graders were given a multiple choice question to identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Choices included the right to vote, organization of one religion, and how the new government of the U.S. would work. Few chose the correct answer: the Declaration of Independence explains why the colonies would no longer let England control them. Only 35% of fourth graders got this question correct; 64% answered incorrectly.

  22. Which war the U.S. fought against Hitler and Germany:

    A whopping 72% of students failed to identify that the U.S. fought Hitler and Germany in World War II. Twenty-seven percent got this question correct, choosing the Second World War over choices including the Civil War, First World War, and the Vietnam War.

  23. Who Hitler was at all:

    Forget which war Hitler was a part of — many students have no idea who he was at all. Nearly a quarter of students can’t identify Adolf Hitler. Ten percent of students think he was a “mutinous manufacturer.”

  24. The Soviet Union was the leading Cold War communist nation:

    When asked to identify the leading communist nation in the Cold War, 79% of fourth graders got the answer wrong. Instead, they chose France, North Korea, or Germany.

  25. The importance of harbors for colonial growth:

    When shown a map of the colonial economy identifying harbors, production, and key cities, most students were unable to identify that the location of harbors was important for cities that grew during colonial times. Sixty percent of students got this question incorrect.

CollegeStats is an informational website, which aggregates publicly available information provided by the U.S. Department of Education (http://nces.ed.gov) from the 2011 school year. CollegeStats is in no way affiliated with, sponsored by, endorsed by, nor endorses any of the schools listed on this website. School names and school logos are trademarks of their respective owners.