NAEP Reading and Civics Scores Compared

Recent results on the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics show that scores for 4th graders increased significantly since 1998. U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and other supporters of the No Child Left Behind Act suggest that the improvement is the result of the law's testing and accountability provisions in reading and its Reading First program. ("Test Gains Reigniting Old Debate," May 23, 2007.) Secretary Spellings indicated that students who read well are better able to understand material in history and civics and that teachers are integrating subject matter on these topics into reading instruction.

Critics of the law argue its focus on reading and math scores causes teachers and administrators to narrow the curriculum and limit instruction time in history, civics, and other subjects. They are skeptical of any claims that NCLB provisions are leading to gains on NAEP civics, history or science exams. In this week's Stat of the Week, the EPE Research Center compares gains in NAEP civics scores to changes in NAEP reading scores over the same approximate time period.

Comparing Trends in Civics and Reading Scores

A closer look at NAEP civics scores between 1998 and 2006 and the NAEP reading scores between 1998 and 2005 shows similar patterns for the two subjects. Scores in civics increased by four points from 150 to 154 on a 300-point scale, a statistically significant gain. In NAEP reading, scores for 4th graders also improved significantly from 213 to 217 points on a 500-point scale.

4th Grade NAEP Reading Scores: 1998 and 2005

Drilling down to the subgroup level, comparatively stronger gains can be seen for specific racial and ethnic groups in both subjects. Civics scale scores improved by 10 points for African Americans and by 15 points for Hispanic 4th graders between 1998 and 2006. Scale scores in 4th grade reading increased by 7 points for African Americans and by 10 points for Hispanics between 1998 and 2005.

In addition, in both civics and reading, 4th grade scores increased most for lower-scoring students. In civics, scores at the 10th and 25th percentiles showed statistically significant gains from 1998 to 2006, with no comparable gains reported for higher achieving students. Similarly, in reading, the largest gains for the overall student population took place at the 10th and 25th percentiles between 1998 and 2005.

Where the Gains Are

4th Grade NAEP Civics Percentile Scores: 1998 and 2006

When comparing the NAEP civics and reading scores, certain limitations should be kept in mind. The tests in the two subjects differ in a number of ways, including the year of the most recent data and the scale used for scoring the exams. Nevertheless, a comparison yields results indicating that students are making gains on both tests.

Perspectives on the causal factors behind gains may be heavily influenced by opinions on the effectiveness of the No Child Left Behind Act. Regardless of the cause of the gains, one can say that, on average, 4th grade students have improved on both the NAEP civics and NAEP reading tests since 1998 and that gains have been largest among African American and Hispanic students, as well as in the lowest achieving percentiles.