Teaching & Learning

National Program Shown to Boost School Performance and Job Skills

A nation-wide study conducted for the National History Day (NHD) program concludes that students who participate in the program boost their overall school performance. The report presents findings of the first national evaluation of the widely used curricular program.

In Utah, students participate in NHD through the Utah History Fair, an outreach program of Utah State University that emphasizes the university’s land-grant mission throughout the state.

Study results released Jan. 27 show that NHD students perform better on high-stakes tests, are better writers, more confident and capable researchers and have a more mature perspective on current events and civic engagement than their peers. Participants also show a greater ability to collaborate with peers, manage their time and persevere — all skills employers say are lacking in today’s workforce.

For more than 30 years, Utah State University has operated the program in Utah, coordinating the regional and state-level competitions and providing support for teachers and students throughout the school year. In academic year 2010-11, upwards of 8,000 students from more than 20 school districts will take part in the Utah History Fair.

“The Utah History Fair continues to influence the lives of children in Utah,” said Nicholas A. Demas, Utah History Fair director. “Over the past decade, tens of thousands of students have benefitted in all areas of education by applying critical thinking, careful analysis, detailed research and exceptional writing to a historical topic of their choice.”

National History Day is a year-long academic program for 4th to 12th grade students focused on historical research, interpretation and creative expression. NHD students become writers, filmmakers, Web designers, playwrights and artists as they create unique contemporary expressions of history.

“I am very proud of the accomplishments and determination of Utah’s students,” Demas said. “Many stories and projects stand out as exemplary in Utah. A student attending an alternative high school in Washington County used the Utah History Fair as a launching pad to attend Dixie State College. This bright young woman took her projects to the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest two years in a row.”

A student from West High School went into her project with the preconceived notion that censorship hindered artistic expression, Demas said.

“After dedicated research on the topic, she changed her conclusion and thoughts about music censorship toward the understanding that censorship is sometimes o.k. in a public forum,” he said. “This project provided a very balanced and thoughtful approach to a sensitive topic. The judges at nationals responded, and the young woman took first in her category.”

The full report, “National History Day Works,” is available online.

Conducted by San Francisco-based research firm Rockman, et al, the study looked at performance assessments, surveys and standardized test scores to evaluate students’ research and writing skills, ability to interpret historical information, academic performance and interest in past and current events. Researchers compared their evaluations of students who participated in National History Day to their peers who did not participate in the program.

The study, conducted at four sites around the country, found that on nearly every measure, NHD students’ scores or ratings were higher than their peers who did not participate in the program. The evaluated sites included school districts in urban, suburban and rural settings, including Aldine Unified School District, Houston, Texas; Chesterfield County Schools, Chesterfield, S.C.; a large public school district in Colorado; and Paterson Public Schools, Paterson, N.J. The survey included a slightly higher sample of Black and Hispanic students compared to the population breakdown in public schools in the United States.

The Utah History Fair is an outreach program of Utah State University and Utah’s affiliate to National History Day. More than 10,000 students per year start projects and take part in school competitions, while more than 3,000 of these students then go on to take part in one of nine region competitions around the state. The students showcase their original research through a variety of projects that demonstrate the topic’s significance in history. The Utah History Fair is a statewide program. More information is available at the Utah History Fair website.

National History Day is a year-long academic organization for elementary and secondary school students. Each year, more than half a million students, encouraged by thousands of teachers nationwide, participate in the NHD contest. Students choose historical topics related to a theme and conduct extensive primary and secondary research through libraries, archives, museums, oral history interviews and historic sites. After analyzing and interpreting their sources and drawing conclusions about their topics’ significance in history, students present their work in original papers, websites, exhibits, performances and documentaries. Each spring, these projects are entered into competitions at local, state and national levels, where they are evaluated by professional historians and educators. The program culminates in a national competition each June held at the University of Maryland at College Park. Information about NHD is available at its website.

Some of the important findings from the notational evaluation include:

  • NHD students outperform their non-NHD peers on state standardized tests, not only in social studies, but in reading, science and math as well. For example, in 2008-09 in Texas, twice as many NHD students achieved “commended performance” as non-NHD students (87 percent vs. 37 percent) on the social studies assessment of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). At a South Carolina middle school where NHD was part of the curriculum for all eighth graders, students scored higher than students in a non-NHD middle school on the language arts, math and science segments of the 2008-09 PASS test.
  • NHD students are better writers who write with a purpose and real voice and marshal solid evidence to support their point of view. NHD students outscored comparison-group students on both pre- and post-writing assessments, receiving more high scores (5s or 6s) on a 6-point scale, and fewer low scores. NHD essays had more sentence variety, richer vocabulary, a more authentic voice and better organization.
  • NHD students are critical thinkers who can digest, analyze and synthesize information. Performance assessments show that NHD students overall were significantly better than their peers at interpreting historical information, with an average of 79 percent vs. 61 percent correct.
  • NHD students learn 21st century skills. They learn how to collaborate with team members, talk to experts, manage their time and persevere.
  • NHD has a positive impact among students whose interests in academic subjects may wane in high school. Analyses show that among Black and Hispanic students, NHD students outperform non-NHD students, posting higher performance assessment scores and levels of interests and skills. Compared to non-NHD boys, and to all girls, boys participating in NHD reported significantly higher levels of interest in history, civic engagement and confidence in research skills on both pre- and post-surveys. 

Related links:

Utah History Fair

National History Day

Source: National History Day and Utah History Fair

Contact: Nicholas Demas, 801-961-1343, nicholas.demas@usu.edu

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