8th Graders Don’t Know Much About History, National Exam Shows

By Stephen Sawchuk & Sarah D. Sparks — April 23, 2020 9 min read
The National Archives building in Washington houses the original Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. Engraved on it is a quote from Shakespeare on the importance of history: “What is past is prologue.”
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Eighth graders’ grasp of key topics in history have plummeted, national test scores released this morning show—an alarming result at a time of deep political polarization, economic uncertainty, and public upheaval in the United States.

Except for the very top-performing students, scores fell among nearly all grade 8 students in history on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the Nation’s Report Card, since the last history administration, in 2014.

The decline of four points overall erased fully half of the overall gains made in the subject since 1994, the first year the exam was given. Federal officials described themselves as “disappointed” and the results as “pervasive” and “disturbing.”

Scores fell in geography, too. In that subject, the overall decline of three points since 2014 was largely due to a downturn in the performance of the lowest-performing students—those at the 25th percentile and below.

Only in civics, the third subject tested, did students’ scores remain flat. Learning in that subject has historically proved difficult to budge: Since its first administration, in 1998, scores in that assessment have increased by only three points.

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called the results “stark and inexcusable.”

“In the real world, this means students don’t know what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about, nor can they discuss the significance of the Bill of Rights, or point out basic locations on a map,” she said.

National concern about the quality of young people’s civic and historical preparation and knowledge of global events has been steadily growing over the last two years, with some states introducing new coursework and testing requirements. But the coronavirus pandemic has upended K-12 education, and it is unclear whether states will continue to pump the gas on those efforts.

On the other hand, the temporary suspension of the reading and math tests many blame for focusing schools too narrowly on those subjects provides an opportunity to seize the moment, noted Louise Dubé, the executive director of curriculum provider iCivics. She also helps lead a coalition of some 90 groups supporting civics and history education.

“Are we going to be able to focus on these integrative disciplines that have a great deal of connection with what’s happening right now and feel a great deal more relevant in people’s lives?” she asked. “I don’t know, but it’s all I can hope for.”

A Consistent Pattern

The history, civics, and geography exams were given in early 2018 to a national sample of nearly 43,000 8th graders. It is also the first time these subjects have been assessed using digital devices as well as traditional paper-and-pencil forms. (There are no state-by-state results for the three subjects as there are for math and reading.)

Prior research has shown that switching to a new testing mode can depress scores, so NAEP officials used statistical methods to equate the digital results to prior years’ paper-and-pencil scores.

The overall findings were distinctly subpar. In history, students scored lower on all four areas measured by the test—the evolution of American democracy; culture; economic and technical changes; and America’s changing role in the world. The poor results were consistent across all racial and ethnic categories too, with the exception of students identifying as Asian or Pacific Islander.

Across the three subjects, a quarter or more of students fell below the “basic” performance category, meaning they didn’t have even the fundamental prerequisite skills to master the content. Thirty-four percent of students fell below the “basic” performance category in history, compared to 29 percent in 2014. In geography, 29 percent fell below that mark compared to 25 percent in 2014. There was no significant change in civics.

Tina Heafner, president of National Council of the Social Studies, said she was dismayed by the first decline in U.S. history and geography achievement in middle school. “One factor that also is really disturbing for me is just the general low level of proficiency: Less than a quarter of our students are proficient or above proficient level in the three subject areas, and we’re talking only 15 percent in U.S. history.”

The history and geography findings add to growing evidence of a broad-based widening of learning gaps between top performers and the most struggling students. In 2019, NAEP’s 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores and the Program for International Student Assessment of 15-year-olds in the same subjects showed that the highest-achieving 10 percent of students held steady or improved, while the lowest 10 percent to 20 percent of students declined over the same time.

“The bottom of the distribution is dropping at a faster rate,” said Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP. “These results are not designed to point to why this is also happening, but we clearly see a correlation here that’s disturbing.”

Different groups of 8th graders took NAEP’s 8th grade reading and its civics, geography, and history tests, but Carr surmised that students who struggle to read would likely face an uphill fight with the social studies subjects. . At least a third of the questions require that when writing in response to texts students must “be clear about their answers and justify their answers,” she noted.

Widening gaps between low-and high-performing students “are really concerning,” said Emily Swafford, the director of academic and professional affairs at the American Historical Association. “And the reason I think they’re concerning is because I’ve seen that history is good preparation for success in your future, whatever you do, whatever course of study you have and then whatever job that you have after that.

“But we have seen trends that history, rather than being a gateway to success in college is a barrier for our students, for [low-income] Pell grant students, for African-American students, Native American students, Latinx students, and first-generation students. That’s worrying and something that we’re actively trying to change,” she added.

Those trends ought to be concerning in the context of the coronavirus, as the nation shifts to an unprecedented experiment with distance learning. At least 37 states, comprising more than 55 million students, have closed school buildings and moved to remote learning in response to the pandemic. Researchers and educators alike point out that the digital divide and other disparities are likely to exacerbate opportunity and learning gaps among students.

Data from the NAEP’s background questionnaires, meanwhile, suggest that differential access to learning and course quality also might have contributed to the patterns. About half of students in the top quarter of performance said that they regularly were asked to “compare and evaluate different points of view about the past,” compared to less than a third of those students in the bottom quarter of performance.

In civics, just 22 percent of students had teachers whose primary responsibility was teaching that subject—and those students scored, on average, six points higher than students whose teachers said civics was not their primary responsibility.

While these data do not conclusively explain the results, they do bolster what some social studies experts have called a “civics gap” —the idea some groups of students are less likely to receive high-quality programming in civics and history.

“You know, your high-achieving students are more likely to be in your higher level classes, perhaps AP classes or honors-level classes,” Haefner said. “And so it would raise the question of, what’s the quality of instruction that’s occurring depending on the type of class a student takes?

“So then this test becomes a measure, a cumulative measure of what content knowledge they been exposed to this message, as much a measure of exposure and access as it is anything,” she said.

It’s possible, too, that classroom teaching has changed in ways that could affect scores. Swafford said more high schools have emphasized “historical thinking” over content memorization. The NAEP exam covers historical content from 1607 onwards, as well as asking students to analyze various sources.

“What I care about in history education is this sense of, are you learning about what the value of studying history is, and how historians know what they know and how history can help you in your career and adult lives,” Swafford said, “and that’s not easily measured in the assessment tool that NAEP has.”

A Call to Action

Through 2018 and 2019, many states and districts had been bolstering their social-science curricula by adding new course requirements, assessments, and hands-on projects. Voting rates among young people, too, had been increasing, thanks to surging youth activism following the devastating school shootings and warnings about climate change.

It’s not at all clear in the middle of the coronavirus whether states will continue to push forward on those policies, given skyrocketing unemployment and mounting financial concerns.

The decline in history scores mark a bitter irony given present circumstances. The coronavirus has sent historians, public health officials, educators, and armchair pundits alike to interrogate the past—-like the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, the polio scare of the early 1950s, and the HIV/AIDS tragedy of the 1980s and 1990s—in search of clues on how to handle the current crisis. In that sense, the motto of the U.S. Archives, which houses the nation’s most important historical documents, feels especially relevant: What’s past is prologue.

Similarly, geography does much to explain how the virus spread around the world from one province in China. And as for civics, Congress is now immersed in debating and rolling out legislation aimed at minimizing the effects of the virus.

Some teachers say they’re committed to history and civics learning even as they move to remote learning. Indeed, they view it as a wake-up call.

Andres Perez, an 11th grade humanities teacher at High Tech High School Chula Vista, in California, often has his students produce authentic work products as part of their civics and history learning. They’ve submitted policy memos at city council and school board meetings, written op-eds, and are currently taking photographs for a local museum contest.

In May, he’ll begin a unit focused on some big civic questions raised by the pandemic on the nation’s economic safety net, health-care infrastructure, and disaster preparedness: Why are lines for food banks so long? Why are policymakers concerned about a shortage of hospital beds? Was the United States as prepared for the pandemic as other countries?

The point is to get students thinking about their civic choices and convictions, he said.

“Students are participating in civics every day. They’re wearing masks if they go to the grocery store. They’re standing six feet apart from each other,” Perez said. “It’s important to understand why that is practicing civics, and that participating in it means something.

“All citizens should be aware of what the government is asking them to do—and why the government really is, more so than usual, expecting extra behaviors of its citizens.”

Whether most U.S. schools are poised to do the same is unclear, but social studies advocates pleaded with them not to lose sight of the topic in their distance learning plans.

“Learning comes alive when students can experience what’s happening in the real world and see it in action. And it’s not just about writing letters to your congressman. It’s being prepared for this world—a world of complex systems,” Dubé said. “And to only focus on reading and math is really disappointing.”

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