History and Civics Tests Reveal Knowledge Gaps

By Robert Rothman — April 11, 1990 9 min read

Washington--American students, including high-school seniors a year away from voting age, demonstrate a “limited” understanding of fundamental concepts of U.S. history and civics, two reports issued here last week have concluded.

The reports by the National Assessment of Educational Progress were based on tests administered in 1988--the first to gauge students’ knowledge in the two subjects across three grade levels. The results also showed substantial achievement gaps at all grade levels between black and white students and between those from advantaged and from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Trend studies, which compare the 1988 results with those of prior surveys, revealed that 17-year-olds’ performance remained stable or declined since the mid-1980’s.

Over all, the reports note, students showed some familiarity with basic facts of history and government. But their knowledge tended to be uneven, and failed to demonstrate in-depth understanding of the subjects.

For example, although most 12th graders appeared to be familiar with the U.S. Presidents, fewer than half could write an adequate description of Presidential responsibilities.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the chairman of naep’s governing board, noted that the results are similar to the poor performance displayed on previously released naep assessments in reading, writing, and geography.

But the history and civics results are “cause for special concern,” he said, because “these subjects lie at the heart of one of the central responsibilities of American schools: preparing students to participate as citizens in the affairs of our democratic republic.”

U.S. students’ lackluster performance in these areas is “ironic,” he suggested, in light of the blossoming of democracy throughout the world.

“It seems to me sad, but probably true,” the former assistant secretary of education said at a press conference here, “that millions of people outside our borders possess a keener sense of the importance of such things than do our own sons and daughters.”

Mr. Finn added that, together with the results of naep’s geography assessment, the findings from the history and civics assessments suggest that the three main pillars of social-studies instruction are “failing.”

But Frances Haley, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, rejected that view. The overwhelming majority of 4th graders, and nearly all 8th and 12th graders, she pointed out, demonstrated rudimentary knowledge of history and civics.

“There is evidence they do know the basic facts of those subjects,” Ms. Haley said in an interview. “We still have a way to go in getting up to higher levels of thinking.”

She also noted that many states and school districts are revamping their social-studies curricula along the lines suggested by reform reports by the Bradley Commission on History in Schools and the National Commission on Social Studies in Schools.

“By the next assessment,” she said, “we’ll see whether curricular reforms are making any difference.”

Naep is a Congressionally mandated project that tests a national sample of students in grades 4, 8, and 12 every two years in a variety of subjects.

The 1988 history assessment, which tested 16,000 students in about 1,000 schools, was the first in that subject to be included in naep’s regular battery. Under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, naep in 1986 conducted a special U.S. history assessment of 17-year-olds. Results from it were published in the book What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, written by Mr. Finn and the education historian Diane Ravitch.

A 1988 test of 2,300 11th graders, conducted in addition to the larger assessment, found little overall change from the 1986 performance, which Mr. Finn and Ms. Ravitch called “shameful.”

The larger history assessment found that the vast majority of students at all grade levels knew simple historical facts, such as the national bird of the United States, and that most 8th and 12th graders showed rudimentary interpretive skills, such as the ability to identify the war in which a sample letter might have8been written.

Relatively few 4th graders could perform above the basic level, it noted. But this finding was not surprising, according to the report, since few schools teach U.S. history before the 5th grade.

But the study also found that older students’ performance dropped sharply at higher levels of proficiency. Only 13 percent of the 8th graders and fewer than half the seniors demonstrated an understanding of historical relationships, and only 5 percent of the 12th graders showed the broad understanding the report says “may help them to understand the controversies associated with current political, social, and economic issues.”

Within each grade, moreover, the gaps between white and minority students’ performance were substantial. Although 85 percent of the white 4th graders could perform at the basic level, only half of the blacks and Hispanics in that grade demonstrated such proficiency.

Similarly, students from advantaged urban communities--metropolitan areas where higher-income professionals predominate--outperformed those from rural and from disadvantaged urban areas at each grade level.

In analyzing students’ responses to particular questions, former Gov. Richard Riley of South Carolina said at the press conference that they indicate students possess a “‘Trivial Pursuit’ sort of familiarity with some of the key figures and dramatic events of our past.”

For example, although three-fourths of the junior-high-school students knew the date the Declaration of Independence was issued, only a third could identify its opening paragraph.

Mr. Riley also noted that black students performed relatively well--in some cases outperforming their white peers--on questions dealing with blacks in history.

“This shows clearly that such material belongs in the curriculum, though I believe it is a part of America’s history that should be taught to all children--black and white alike,” he said. “Conversely, there is a need for black students to have a much better knowledge of the general history of the nation of which they, like all of us, are part.”

Ina V.S. Mullis, naep’s deputy director, also noted that most students, regardless of race, performed relatively poorly on the open-ended test items, which asked them to use their knowledge to write answers, rather than choose from among pre-selected responses.

For example, she noted, when asked to compare the powers of the Presidency today with those of Washington’s era, only 40 percent of the 12th graders could provide at least two reasons for a difference in Presidential power, and only 10 percent could elaborate on their responses.

“The results to this question are especially disappointing,” she said, “in light of the prevailing emphasis in assessment on using performance measures to tap students’ thinking and problem-solving skills.’'

But Ms. Haley of the social-studies council noted that the 1988 results provide “baseline data” that could show improvements in the future as states and districts shift away from a reliance on multiple-choice testing.

The report also found that, in contrast to the naep geography assessment, the overwhelming majority of students who reported taking history and social-studies coursework outperformed those who had not.

More than two-thirds of the 4th graders reported studying social studies at least three times a week, 95 percent of the 8th graders said they had taken U.S. history between the 5th and the 8th grades, and 98 percent of the 12th graders said they took the subject in high school.

But 83 percent of the seniors said they spent less than two hours a week on history homework, and the performance of those students was worse than that of their classmates who reported spending more than three hours on homework each week.

The assessment revealed, in addition, that most history instruction is characterized by reading from textbooks, with little attention given to strategies researchers say enhance learning, such as reading primary-source materials, engaging in group work, and writing.

The report on the civics assessment was based on a 1988 test of 11,000 students in grades 4, 8, and 12, as well as a separate test to compare the performance of 13- and 17-year-olds with that of students in those grades tested in 1976 and 1982.

The study found that while 13-year-olds’ performance was equivalent to, or slightly higher than, that of students from past years, 17-year-olds’ performance declined sig4nificantly over the 12-year period.

This decline, it found, occurred almost entirely among white students. The gap between the civics achievement of whites and of blacks and Hispanics, while substantial, narrowed between 1976 and 1988, according to the report.

In 1988, the vast majority of students at all grade levels showed a rudimentary knowledge of civic life, such as understanding the purpose of traffic signals. And most of those in the upper grades demonstrated a basic understanding of political institutions.

But only 13 percent of the 8th graders and 49 percent of the high-school seniors understood specific governmental functions, such as8how the Chief Justice of the United States is selected.

“Since knowledge and understandings of this sort would likely help students to act as informed citizens,” the report says, “it is disappointing that fewer than half the 12th-grade students reached this level of competence in the 1988 assessment.”

Far fewer--only 6 percent of the seniors--reached the highest level of performance, a total the report calls “disappointing” since that group “may well represent the pool from which future leaders are drawn.”

As in the history assessment, the civics assessment found sharp gaps between the performance of advantaged and disadvantaged youths. For example, only 39 percent of the disadvantaged 8th graders demonstrated familiarity with constitutional rights, such as the right to vote, compared with 70 percent of their more advantaged peers.

But, the study found, students from rural areas performed relatively well on the civics test, and in some cases outperformed those from advantaged urban areas.

Although students from all areas showed a range of knowledge across all aspects of civics tested, with their performance increasing as they progressed through school, they “demonstrated a surprisingly uneven understanding within the various areas of the civics assessment,” according to Ms. Mullis.

For example, she noted, even though students were familiar with voting and elections by the 4th grade, only 36 percent of the 8th graders and 57 percent of the 12th graders knew that Presidential candidates were nominated by party conventions. This finding is particularly surprising, Ms. Mullis said, since the assessment was administered during the peak of the 1988 primary season.

Few students reported that their civics classrooms employed instructional methods such as mock governments or trials. But those who did outperformed those who did not.

Copies of “The U.S. History Report Card” and “The Civics Report Card” are available for $14 each from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, P.O. Box 6710, Princeton, N.J. 08541-6710.

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 1990 edition of Education Week as History and Civics Tests Reveal Knowledge Gaps