Technology makes knowing where you are and how you get around much easier. GPS, Google Maps, and MapQuest have relegated the physical fold-up map to a relic of the past, but even technology needs a starting place and that’s basic geography.

American kids though are severely lacking in their understanding of geography and that trend doesn’t seem to be improving.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) audited data from the Department of Education on how much our eighth graders know about geography and the findings are woeful. According to the report, seventy-three percent tested below proficiency levels last year with 48 percent exhibiting partial mastery and a quarter (25 percent) scoring below even basic competency.

Only 3 percent scored at an advanced level and just shy of a quarter (24 percent) scored at the proficient level.

Sadly, these depressing numbers haven’t changed much over the past twenty years, according to the report:

Since the geography assessment using the current framework was first administered in 1994, the average test scores among eighth grade students have shown no change, with average scores for all students nationwide remaining below proficient for 20 years. However, certain student groups made modest gains in achievement. For example, average test scores in geography increased for White, Black, and Hispanic students since 1994 (see fig. 4). Further, average test scores appeared to have increased among Asian/Pacific Islander students, but unlike the increases for the other groups, these increases were not statistically significant.

The blame lies  with teachers and school administrators who are choosing to cut back on geography – typically taught as part of social studies. According to the report, half of all eighth grade students in 2014 reported learning about geography “a few times a year” or “hardly ever.”

CNS News reports on the teachers’ perspectives:

Even though geography is defined as one of 10 core academic subjects in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), states do not have to include it in their mandatory assessments.

As a result, educators said they were under “pressure to emphasize other subjects” such as math, reading, and science, and that “allocating resources for geography education was challenging in the face of greater national and state focus on tested subjects.”

Blaming the standardized tests sounds like scape-goating. Educators should be concerned with teaching holistically to encourage overall enrichment. Leaving out geography places our youth at a disadvantage and it’s irresponsible to think that Siri on our iPhones will take care of it.

Imagine if technology failed such as during the power outages in New York City a few years ago, how would young people get around beyond the few square miles they are familiar with?

More broadly, in a world that is so interconnected, geography helps us make sense of global political and economic issues. Do our middle schoolers understanding why the Middle East is strategically important – i.e., oil? Can they appreciate other cultures and why so many people choose to leave their homes behind to come to America?