The report from the American Enterprise Institute said about half of the 17-year-olds surveyed could not identify many historical events and the books connected to them.
USA Today said the conclusions indicated that teens actually do pretty well when it comes to topics covered in class, although not so well when those topics are ignored or skimmed over.
An example was that only half of the 1,200 students surveyed could place the time frame of the Civil War, but nearly all knew that Martin Luther King authored the famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
"School has emphasized Martin Luther King, and everybody teaches it, and people are learning it," said Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank. "What a better thing it would be if people also had the Civil War part and the civil rights part, and the Harriet Tubman part and the Uncle Tom's Cabin part."
An encouraging note was that more students are taking advanced history courses in school.