The scores on the history test did not vary remarkably from years past; in 1994, for example, 19 percent of fourth-grade students scored proficient or better in U.S. history.

More than 7,000 fourth-grade students, 11,000 eighth graders, and 12,000 high school seniors from a nationally representative sample took the test last year.

To be considered proficient, they had to get certain scores out of 500. For fourth-graders, the score was 243. Eighth-graders needed 294, and 12th graders had to get a 325.

Judy Brodigan, who was head of the elementary social studies curriculum for the Lewisville, Texas, school district for a decade, said history and social studies classes aren’t as much of a priority for school districts as math and reading. She noted that many states only test history and social studies starting in middle school, which means elementary school students don’t get the background they need in the subject.

“When the foundation isn’t built in elementary school, these students are coming to middle school lacking crucial skills,” Brodigan said. “What it means is that in what is becoming a more and more global society, American students are more and more at a disadvantage.”

Educators said history is critical to students learning how to become better citizens and understanding how the country’s political and cultural systems work. Students need to not only recognize leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, but also understand why they were important to the development of the country.

“Overall the quality and success of our lives can only be enhanced by a study of our roots,” said Steven Paine, former state schools superintendent for West Virginia. “If you don’t know your past, you will not have a future.”