Published Online: May 16, 2007
Updated: December 13, 2011

Students’ Mastery of NAEP History and Civics Mixed

Elementary and older students' knowledge of American history has improved in recent years, but while younger students also have made gains in civics, performance in that subject in the upper grades remains flat, test results released today show.

Fourth graders improved their scores in separate tests of both U.S. history and civics, according to the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

Online NAEP Resources

View the May 16, 2007, Webcast on the NAEP results, hosted by Peggy G. Carr, associate commissioner, assessment division, National Center for Education Statistics.

The average score for 4th graders in civics climbed from 150 to 154, on a 300-point scale, from 1998 to 2006, when the latest test was administered. In history, students in that grade saw their average score rise from 208 to 211, on a 500-point scale, in the same time span. Both increases were deemed statistically significant improvements. Students at the lowest-performing level, rather than high achievers, accomplished the bulk of the gains.

NAEP Civics Scores

At the 8th and 12th grade levels, however, the results were mixed. Middle and high school students’ scores increased in history by statistically relevant margins. Eighth graders’ scores rose from 260 to 263, on a 500-point scale, and seniors’ average scores increased from 287 to 290, also with a maximum of 500 points.

But on the civics test, 8th and 12th grade scores remained stagnant from 1998 to 2006.

Peggy Altoff, the president of the Silver Spring, Md.-based National Council for the Social Studies, said she was pleased to see the gains among 4th graders, though puzzled why those improvements were not seen in upper grades. “It’s kind of inexplicable,” she said.

Fourth grade scores rose despite the fact that in most school districts, in Ms. Altoff’s estimation, U.S. history is not taught until a year later, in 5th grade—when teachers generally cover the pre-Christopher Columbus era through the writing of the U.S. Constitution.

While curriculum varies widely across the country, most districts return to U.S. history in 8th grade, covering the period from the Constitution through post-Civil War Reconstruction, she said. In high school, history is typically required in 10th or 11th grade, said Ms. Altoff, though “there’s no consistency.”

NCLB Law Credited

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, in a statement, attributed the 4th grade gains to the emphasis on reading mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, and specifically the federal Reading First program, which is a part of that law. The 5-year-old federal law requires states to test students annually in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8, and once during high school.

The law’s detractors have said it is forcing schools to spend less time on subjects outside of reading and mathematics—a notion the secretary disputed. The NAEP scores show that schools are introducing young students to civics and history through reading lessons, Ms. Spellings said. That argument echoed similar statements she made last year, in explaining gains in 4th grade science on the NAEP.

“These results are a testament to what works,” said Ms. Spellings, who added: “While critics may argue that NCLB leads educators to narrow their curriculum focus, the fact is when students know how to read and comprehend, they apply these skills to other subjects.”

Ms. Altoff, who is also the social studies consultant for the 28,000-student Colorado Springs District 11 school system, agreed that reading skill was a likely factor in the 4th grade civics and history scores— partly because the questions at that level were so basic. “With a lot of them, if you can read, you’re going to do well.”

But she also was skeptical of the idea that most elementary school teachers are successful at folding coherent civics and history lessons into reading lessons—or that they are encouraged to do so under Reading First. When elementary teachers incorporate those lessons into reading, “there’s no sequence to it,” Ms. Altoff said. “You could be reading about Martin Luther King one day and the American Revolution the next.”

The federally sponsored NAEP is one of the most heavily scrutinized tests in the country because it allows for regular comparisons of U.S. students’ academic knowledge, broken down by racial and ethnic groups, among other categories. The test is administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education.

Inconsistent Knowledge

The history and civics tests were given to a nationally representative sample of students from both public and private schools. The newly released scores, unlike those for the reading and math NAEP, do not allow for state-by-state comparisons of student progress.

The history exam gauges students on their knowledge of specific historical facts, as well as on their ability to evaluate evidence and their understanding of historical “change and continuity” over time, federal officials said. Test questions are structured around four specific themes: democracy, culture, technology, and world role, defined as the changing role of the United States in the world.

NAEP History Scores

On questions from the history test that federal officials released, students showed a strong knowledge of some basic facts, but seemed lost on others. At the 12th grade level, only 14 percent of students could explain why the United States was involved in the Korean War. Just one-third of 8th graders could identify U.S. foreign-policy positions in Latin America.

In civics, students’ knowledge was similarly inconsistent. Seventy-five percent of 4th graders knew that only citizens can vote in the United States, but only 14 percent knew that defendants have the right to a lawyer. In 8th grade, 80 percent successfully identified a notice for jury duty, but only 28 percent could explain the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence.

More than 70 percent of 12th graders were able to analyze a historical text on the importance of education, but just 43 percent could describe the meaning of federalism in American government, or the sharing of power between the federal and state governments.

Members of Congress have long bemoaned American students’ lack of historical and civics knowledge. Last year, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., sponsored legislation that would require the history NAEP be expanded to include state-by-state results, starting with a 10-state pilot program.

At the high school level, at least, graduates appear to be taking roughly the same amount of history and civics courses today that they were a few years ago, by one measure. A transcript study released by federal officials earlier this year showed that an overwhelming majority of 2005 high school graduates had taken U.S. history, and that those numbers had increased slightly from 2000. And 79 percent of graduates had taken a class labeled “government/civics/politics,” roughly the same proportion as in 1990 and 2000, the study found.

Cathy Gorn, the executive director of National History Day, an organization based at the University of Maryland College Park, said the gains among students in that subject were encouraging. But she also believes that the gains could have been stronger and that schools are not doing enough to cultivate students’ love of history and civics. Too many teachers, at all grade levels, encourage memorization of facts and dates, but not the sort of in-depth study that helps students put that information in context, she said.

“If you’re just asking them to memorize when the Declaration of Independence was signed, so what?” said Ms. Gorn, whose organization promotes student interest in historical topics. In researching history, especially more recent events, students need to look at primary sources, conduct independent research, and even interview participants in events, she said.

“When they’re engaged, they really start to think critically about topics,” she said. “What is the legacy of this [event]? How do we understand it through time?”

Vol. 26

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