This Week in Report Cards - Pacific Standard

This Week in Report Cards

A round-up of news and research on rankings mostly pertaining to America.
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(Photo: Joy Rector/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Joy Rector/Shutterstock)

The United States was graded on several measures this week, including air quality, freedom status, and the ability of our pre-teen citizens to answer multiple-choice questions about certain academic disciplines. We picked out some of the most interesting results for you:

1. MOST EIGHTH GRADERS DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT U.S. HISTORY, CIVICS, OR GEOGRAPHY

The results from the 2014 National Assessment of Education Progress—also known as “The Nation’s Report Card”—are in, and they are, well, not impressive. Just 18 percent of America’s eighth graders were proficient in U.S. history, 27 percent were proficient in geography, and 23 percent in civics. Given a time zone map, less than half of the students were able to correctly deduce time zone differences between cities. Only 27 percent were able to describe the role and effect of African Americans in the Civil War. In the civics portion, less than 10 percent of eighth graders were able to completely fill in a chart of the U.S. government’s system of checks and balances.

Before you start on about ‘the state of education’ and ‘kids these days,” know that scores for U.S. history and civics have actually improved since the 1990s, and geography scores are about the same. Check out the full report here. You can even try out a few sample questions yourself and see how you measure up.

2. AT LEAST AIR QUALITY IS (SOMEWHAT) IMPROVING

The American Lung Association released its annual State of the Air Report for 2015 and it seems air quality in the U.S. is a mixed bag. “While most of the nation has much cleaner air quality than even a decade ago, a few cities even reported their worst episodes since the report began,” the association writes. The top three cleanest cities were Prescott, Arizona; Farmington, New Mexico; and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Los Angeles took the top spot in the coveted highest ozone pollution—a.k.a. smog—category. Another metropolitan California region, Fresno-Madera, registered the highest levels of year-round particle pollution. Frighteningly, the association reports that nearly half of the U.S. population—approximately 138.5 million people—live in areas where high air pollution levels make even breathing dangerous.

Maybe that poor air quality has something to do with those even poorer test scores: Last year, Israeli economists found that high levels of pollution were associated with lower test scores.

3. ALSO, AMERICA IS STILL FREE

The 2015 Freedom in the World report from Freedom House begins with a fun interactive map that let’s you watch the state of freedom evolve globally over the last 20 years. The organization ranks countries on a one-to-seven scale based on political rights and civil liberties. In freedom, as in golf, lower is better. It turns out that, worldwide, freedom has been declining for nearly a decade, thanks in part to “more aggressive tactics by authoritarian regimes and an upsurge in terrorist attacks,” Freedom House writes. Syria received the lowest score of any nation in more than a decade. More than 60 countries had declining levels of freedom, many of which were economically powerful or “regionally influential” places, like Egypt, Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela. The good news: This year, Tunisia was the first Arab country to be given the "free" status in four decades.

The U.S. received a score of one, but the continued protests in Baltimore and across the nation after repeated police killings of unarmed black men (and repeated failures to indict the officers responsible) suggest that even America has room for improvement.

This Week In explores ongoing revelations and research on trending news topics.

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