Student Achievement

History Achievement Falls to 1990s Levels on NAEP; Civics Scores Take First-Ever Dive

By Sarah Schwartz — May 03, 2023 8 min read
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Eighth graders’ scores in U.S. history and civics dropped on the test known as the “Nation’s Report Card”—a decline that brings student achievement in these subjects back down to 1990s levels.

The new results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress mark the first time that 8th grade civics scores decreased significantly in the test’s nearly 25-year history, and a continuation of a yearslong downward trend in U.S. history performance. More students are now scoring at the lowest level in both subjects.

“What we’ve learned in these subjects is part of the fabric of who we are as Americans. They are essential subjects,” said Peggy Carr, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, in a briefing with reporters yesterday. “They are a critical part of a well-rounded education.”

“If we can agree that it’s important that students know the history of this great country, how we got here, and how they can engage in a democratic process, then these results I’m about to share with you are concerning,” she said.

Students took the tests in spring 2022. The results are among the first national data on students’ social studies achievement since the pandemic began.

NAEP scores from the 2022 administration in reading and math were released last year, and also showed steep declines in student achievement.

“The latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress further affirms the profound impact the pandemic had on student learning in subjects beyond math and reading,” U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

“It tells us that now is not the time for politicians to try to extract double-digit cuts to education funding, nor is it the time to limit what students learn in U.S. history and civics classes,” he said. “We need to provide every student with rich opportunities to learn about America’s history and understand the U.S. Constitution and how our system of government works. Banning history books and censoring educators from teaching these important subjects does our students a disservice and will move America in the wrong direction.”

Since 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or other measures that restrict how teachers can discuss race and gender in the classroom; 18 have imposed them.

Map: Where Critical Race Theory Is Under Attack

The map below shows which states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.
It will be updated as new information becomes available.

Click here for more information on the measures and variations from state to state.

These two factors—the effect of the pandemic on schools, and this contentious national landscape—are affecting students, said Kerry Sautner, the chief learning officer for the nonpartisan National Constitution Center, which which provides resources and lessons for teaching about the Constitution.

Great civics education isn’t just memorizing facts, Sautner said, but building skills that allow students to discuss, debate, and build consensus. “We lost multiple years of that process around how kids are working with each other,” she said.

As kids have come back to school buildings over the past two years, the political environment has only grown more charged, she added. “They’re either engaging in conversations that aren’t healthy … or, what we’re starting to hear now from last year [from teachers], is that they’re pulling back from those dialogues.”

More students scoring at lowest level

The two NAEP tests measure both students’ content-area knowledge and their understanding of subject-specific skills, such as historical analysis or civic participation.

The U.S. history test covers key names, dates, and places, but also measures students’ knowledge of historical ideas, movements, and use of primary sources. In civics, students are assessed on knowledge and intellectual and participatory skills, such as taking and defending positions on civic issues. A nationally representative sample of 8,000 students took the history test and 7,800 took the civics test.

In U.S. history, the average 8th grade score dropped five points since 2018—continuing a downward trend that began in 2014. Civics scores dipped two points, the first decline since the test began in 1998.

U.S. history scores declined for Black, Hispanic, and white students, as well as students of two or more races. Score declines in civics followed similar patterns by racial group, but the results were not statistically significant.

Some students’ scores didn’t fall, though. In civics, the scores of higher-achieving students—those who scored at the 75th or 90th percentiles—held steady, while lower-performing students’ scores declined. In history, only students at the 90th percentile didn’t perform worse. All other students’ scores declined.

The distribution of scores changed, too, with more students in both subjects scoring “below basic”—the lowest level on the NAEP.

To score “proficient” on NAEP, students need to meet a high bar, mastering challenging subject matter, said Carr. A sample civics question that most proficient students answered correctly asked test takers to interpret data on electoral college results to identify which candidate won an election.

Still, she said, the percentage of students meeting proficiency standards in history and civics are “woefully low” compared to other subjects.

Meeting the “basic” standard, in comparison, represents partial mastery of skills and knowledge. A sample civics question on the rule of law, which most students at the basic level answered correctly, sets up the following scenario:

During lunchtime at a middle school, the students are allowed to use certain parts of the building or are allowed to go to the playground. If students finish lunch early, some go outside, some remain in the cafeteria, and some go to their lockers in the hallways near the classrooms. Some teachers complain that large groups of students are hanging out in the hallways outside of the classrooms and disrupting classes still going on.

Students were asked to create a rule that would be fair to the students and the teachers, and explain how it was fair to both groups.

Another question that most students at basic answered correctly, this one from the U.S. history test, asked students to identify why proponents of the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the sale of alcohol, supported its passage.

‘Coursetaking matters’

The NAEP also tracks how many students take classes on U.S. history and civics—subjects that not all 8th graders study in dedicated courses. The survey found that fewer students are taking U.S. history classes now than in 2018.

Of the students who took the tests, 68 percent said they had taken a class focused mainly on U.S. history by the 8th grade, a significant decrease from 72 percent in 2018. Forty-nine percent said they had taken a course focused mainly on civics, which represents no significant change from four years prior.

“Coursetaking matters,” Carr said. “We’re seeing that particularly for U.S. history. Students who are taking these courses, wholly or in partial context … do better on these assessments.”

These NAEP survey results also show other connections. Students who take civics courses, specifically, are more likely to say that they feel like they can effect change in their communities, and that they understand the importance of participating in the political process.

In both civics and U.S. history, most 8th graders reported taking a class that was either dedicated to the subject or included the subject as part of a broader course of study, Carr said.

Still, Sautner of the Constitution Center noted that only seven states require civics in middle school. “We need to ensure that schools have time and are adequately teaching this,” she said.

Social studies groups call for more investment

Representatives from civics advocacy groups and social studies professional organizations said the pandemic and mounting legal restrictions on what teachers can discuss in the classroom have challenged educators over the past few years. But they also criticized an education landscape that they say has long prioritized reading and math in early grades, to the detriment of social studies.

When schools switched to remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic, some scrapped time for social studies altogether, said Shannon Pugh, the director of community and school programming for Anne Arundel schools in Annapolis, Md., and the president of the National Council for the Social Studies.

NAEP survey data show that in both subjects, higher-performing students were more likely than lower-performing students to say that they had supports during remote learning in the 2020-21 school year—specifically, a computer or tablet available all the time, daily video lessons, and regular access to a teacher who could help them with work.

But for decades before COVID, time allocated to social studies in elementary grades has dwindled, said Louise Dubé, the executive director of iCivics, which provides educational games and lesson plans and advocates for civic education.

“In other disciplines, over the many years I have been in education, we do understand the link between dosage and outcomes,” she said. “That’s what we need for social studies. Unless we have time in the classroom, we can’t get to dosage.”

Social studies research and practice has shown that effective teaching in the subject requires exploration of primary sources and giving students the opportunity to work on real-world problems, Dubé said. “What we’re lacking is the infrastructure to make that happen,” she said.

President Joe Biden’s 2024 budget proposal, released in March, would allocate an additional $50 million for U.S. history and civics education. “That’s a start,” said Larry Paska, the executive director of NCSS, noting that he would want to see states make their own investments as well.

History and civics achievement is important for academic success, but also as students prepare for their adult lives, Dubé said. “Not every kid is going to go to college. Every kid is going to be your neighbor—and we need to solve problems together.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2023 edition of Education Week as History Achievement Falls to 1990s Levels on NAEP; Civics Scores Take First-Ever Dive


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