Student Achievement

Eighth Graders’ Flatline on NAEP U.S. History, Civics, and Geography Tests

By Jessica Brown — April 29, 2015 6 min read
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The nation’s eighth graders have made no academic progress in U.S. history, geography or civics since 2010, according to the latest test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Fewer than one-third of students scored proficient or better on any of the tests and only 3 percent or fewer scored at the advanced level in any of the three subjects.

The NAEP findings, known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” were released on Wednesday. The tests were administered between January and March 2014 to a nationally representative sample of 29,000 8th graders at more than 1,300 schools across the country. Students were last tested in the subjects in 2010.

The results raised concern among some experts about their implications for the future of the United States and its place in the world. Some experts believe social studies education has become an afterthought, taking a back seat to more talked-about subjects such as math, English, and the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, disciplines.

Some of the details in the report:

  • In U. S. history, 53 percent of the 8th graders tested scored in the “basic” range. Only 18 percent scored at or above “proficient,” and only 1 percent scored “advanced.” The average score was 267 out of 500, which is just 1 point higher than in 2010.
  • In geography, 48 percent scored in the “basic” range, 27 percent scored at or above “proficient,” and only 3 percent scored “advanced.” The average score was 261 out of 500, exactly the same as it was in 2010.
  • In civics, 51 percent of students scored “basic,” 23 percent scored at or above “proficient,” and 2 percent scored “advanced.” The average score was 154 out of 300, 3 test-score points higher than in 2010, but not a jump that was considered statistically significant.
  • Many students’ scores were below even the “basic” range. According to the report, 29 percent of students scored below basic levels in U. S. history, 25 percent in geography and 26 percent in civics.

Terry Mazany, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, called the results “unacceptable.”

“Geography, U.S. history and civics are core academic subjects that must be a priority,” Mazany said in a statement. “They represent knowledge and skills that are fundamental to a healthy democracy. The lack of knowledge on the part of America’s students is unacceptable, and the lack of growth must be addressed.”

About the tests

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), housed under the umbrella of the U. S. Department of Education, administers NAEP as a way to measure what American students know and how their performance varies over time. In prior years, the NCES also administered the tests to 12th grade students. It had to forgo those tests this year due to a lack of funding. Administrators said they hope to include 12th grade again during the next round of tests planned for 2018. The 2018 assessments will also be computer-based for the first time.

NAEP reports performance using average scores. It shows percentages of students performing at or above three achievement levels “basic” (partial mastery of knowledge and skills needed for grade-appropriate work), “proficient” (solid academic performance), and “advanced” (superior work). The scores are presented on 0-500 scales for U.S. history and geography, and on a 0- 300 scale for civics.

One bright spot in the results was the improvement in Hispanic students’ performance. More Hispanic students are taking the test and the group has made gains in U.S. history and geography since 2010. Their scores were flat in civics. White students’ scores improved in U. S. history and civics and remained unchanged in geography. The scores of black and Asian/Pacific Islander students remained flat in all categories.

Also, although scores have remained stagnant since 2010, there has been an uptick in average scores in U.S. history and civics since the first tests were administered in those subjects in the 1990s. The overall test scores in geography, however have remained basically flat since the 1990s.

Achievement gaps persist

Although Hispanic students’ scores improved, achievement gaps still existed across the board between white students and black or Hispanic students. Other subgroups of students also continued to lag behind including students with disabilities, English-language learners, and students whose family income level qualified them for free or reduced-price school lunch. The results showed that achievement gaps remain. Students in private schools outperformed those in public schools. More males tested proficient or above than females.

The report also notes that students’ average test scores correlated with the education level attained by their parents. Students whose parents finished high school and college did better on the tests than those whose parents ended their formal education earlier.

Michelle Herczog, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, called the lingering achievement gaps “startling.”

“The representative democracy established by our founding fathers calls for all members of society to be represented in legislatures, political offices, jury boxes, and voting booths,” she said. “Unfortunately this vision has yet to be realized.”

Herczog is worried about how the United States will stack up against other countries if this trend continues.

“How do we, as a nation, maintain our status in the world if future generations of Americans do not understand our nation’s history, world geography, or civic principles and practices?” she said in a statement. “The world is growing more complex; low scores and lack of student growth in these subjects point to a need for immediate action.”

It remains unclear what that “immediate action” should entail. NAEP is used to inform policy discussion, not to answer the questions of “why” and “what’s next.” [CORRECTED 5/6/15 10:53 a.m.] But Mary Crovo, the deputy executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, said she sees some takeaways for educators.

Crovo says teachers can now look at the questions students could and couldn’t answer on NAEP and reflect on whether their own students would be able to answer them. She also said the NAEP results may also re-energize national interest in the area of social studies education; something that is critical to understanding and interpreting current events.

“Look at the headlines today. Look at Nepal. Look at Baltimore. Look at the Supreme Court,” she said in a conference call with reporters. “These are all very significant 21st Century challenges that are soundly rooted in U.S. history and geography.”

What’s next?

Nonetheless, some experts pointed to some promising developments in the social studies fields.

The National Council for the Social Studies says it is optimistic about its 2013 publication of the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies Standards which is being used by some states to update their social studies standards.

Herczog also noted that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization bill, as it currently exists, would include resources to strengthen social studies education.

She is hopeful the trend in stagnant civics, history, and geography achievement will be reversed.

“The future of our communities, our nation, and our world depends on it,” she said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.