When asked to write the name of the "state or district where you live," many marked an adjacent state or wrote the name of their city.
The question was on a national geography test given last year, the results of which were released Friday by the Education Department.
Among the findings:
Overall, scores of fourth- and eighth-graders rose slightly since 1994, the first time the test was given. Twelfth-graders' scores were unchanged.
21 percent of fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders and 25 percent of 12th-graders scored at the proficient level.
The National Assessment Governing Board, the independent group that developed the test, defines proficient as showing solid academic performance and the ability to apply knowledge to actual situations.
The percentage of fourth-graders scoring basic or above rose from 70 percent in 1994 to 74 percent in 2001. More eighth-graders scored basic or above as well -- up from 71 percent to 74 percent.
Students who score basic show partial mastery for grade-level work.
Education Secretary Rod Paige called the results unacceptable.
He added, "It's a world of 24-hour-news cycles, global markets, high-speed Internet and big challenges for all who inhabit it. And in order for our children to be prepared to take their place in that world and rise to those challenges, they must first understand it."
The 2001 test was given to about 25,000 randomly selected students, 90 percent of whom attend public schools.
The results were mixed. For instance, 61 percent of high school seniors knew that Hinduism is the most widely practiced religion in India, but less than half could explain why early civilization flourished in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Three-fourths of eighth-graders knew that Florida is a peninsula, but fewer than one-fourth could explain why the earth's rain forests are being rapidly cut down.
Educators said the mixed results reflect a weaker emphasis on social studies as schools work to boost students' basic math and reading skills, and focus their standardized testing programs on those subjects.
Peggy Altoff, supervisor of social studies for the Carroll County, Md., school district, said geography is getting less class time, with schools spending less money on training and materials. But she also said states are including geography in their academic standards.
Altoff criticized NAEP's emphasis on answering isolated questions, saying it's not always necessary for a 9-year-old to know the capitals of all 50 states, for instance, if they're not learning about states' history.
"Kids don't learn and retain information in isolation," she said.
Cricket F.L. Kidwell, president of the California Council for the Social Studies, agreed.
"Memorization is a skill that I think is helpful, but it's not enough," she said. "We have to go beyond memorization, and we have to help the students make those connections and begin to evaluate information, synthesize information, and of course be able to apply those skills to real-life situations."
The scores did bring some good news, especially for minorities: While their average scores still trail those of their white counterparts, the gap in scores shrank considerably for black fourth-graders, from 50 points in 1994 to 41 points last year.
Scores for all black students rose, but those of fourth-graders rose most sharply, with 44 percent at "basic" level, compared with 34 percent in 1994.
Still, only about 5 percent of black students scored at or above "proficient," far below that of white students' 33 percent proficient rate.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known informally as "The Nation's Report Card," is given in different subjects periodically.