Beyond Basics, Civics Eludes U.S. Students

By David J. Hoff — November 24, 1999 6 min read
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Almost all 4th graders know that Bill Clinton is the president of the United States, and the vast majority of 8th graders can identify Martin Luther King Jr. as a civil rights leader.


“The NAEP 1998 Civics Report Card for the Nation” is available from Education Publications Center, U.S. Department of Education, PO Box 1398, Jessup, MD 20794-1398; or by calling (877) 433-7827. It is also online at nationsreportca rd/civics/ civics.asp.

But American students have a weak grasp of the underlying principles of the U.S. Constitution and lack a fundamental understanding of how governments operate, according to the results of the 1998 civics portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“The kids get the words, but it’s not the words we want,” said Diane Ravitch, a research professor at New York University and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, the panel that sets NAEP policy and achievement levels. “It’s the living of democracy,” she said at a press conference held here last week to unveil the latest yardstick of student scholarship.

In the first national assessment of students’ knowledge of civics and government in 10 years, NAEP found that about two-thirds of the test-takers in each of three grades tested achieved at the “basic” level or above. A little more than 20 percent in each grade scored at the “proficient” level. But only 2 percent of 4th graders and 2 percent of 8th graders rated “advanced,” while 4 percent of high school seniors reached the advanced level.

The congressionally mandated NAEP is the only national sampling of student achievement in core subjects.

The results demonstrate that schools don’t spend enough time on civics education to give students the in-depth knowledge they need to become what NAEP considers “proficient” or “advanced,” experts in the field said last week.

“One of the major reasons students did not do well on the NAEP study is the vast majority are either not being taught civics and government at all, or they are being taught little, too late, and inadequately,” Charles N. Quigley, the executive director of the Center for Civic Education, said at the press conference.

“Under these conditions, you can hardly expect them to do well on such a test,” he added.

Lacking Fundamentals

On the test, 93 percent of the nearly 6,000 participating 4th graders correctly identified Mr. Clinton as the nation’s president; 81 percent of 8,200 8th graders knew of Dr. King’s role in history; and 90 percent of 7,800 12th graders said Social Security was a program to help elderly citizens.

But across all three grade levels, students failed to display deeper knowledge of American government. For example:

  • Fifty-seven percent of 4th graders did not understand that the president signs bills into law, and 85 percent could not name two services paid for with tax dollars.
  • Seventy-four percent of 8th graders could not name two ways citizens participate in presidential campaigns, while only 6 percent could describe how a country benefits from having a constitution.
  • Thirty percent of high school seniors knew that the U.S. Supreme Court uses judicial review to preserve minority rights, and 45 percent understood that the president and the Department of State have more power over foreign policy than Congress.

Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Quigley suggested that school officials needed to re-evaluate their social studies and history curricula to ensure they were focused on how the U.S. government is formed and how it functions.

“The typical response you get is: ‘We have a crowded curriculum, and there’s no room’” for civics education, said Mr. Quigley, whose Calabasas, Calif.-based nonprofit organization wrote the voluntary national standards for civics and government education. The committee that wrote the frameworks for the 1998 civics test relied on those standards as a guide, according to the report.

But plenty of successful programs “find the time,” Mr. Quigley said. “You have to set priorities.”

“Civic education should be fully integrated into the teaching of social science and history,” said Ms. Ravitch, who was an assistant secretary of education under President Bush.

Experience Counts

Data from the NAEP survey suggest that students with real-life experiences scored higher on the test than those whose experience was limited to classroom work.

For example, 12th graders who had performed community service scored better than those who hadn’t. Fourth and 8th graders who used the Internet as a learning tool in their civics classes outperformed those who didn’t. And 8th graders who learned by working on small-group projects also had higher scores than those whose instruction was lecture-based.

“The practicing of those skills is the way you remember them,” Richard M. Theisen, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, said in a telephone interview from the group’s annual convention in Orlando, Fla.

Such activities mean holding mock trials in classrooms or invigorating student governments, said Mr. Theisen, who is a social studies teacher at Osseo High School in the Minneapolis suburbs.

“There’s a need to have that kind of experience,” he said.

But according to students’ answers to survey questions, many classes aren’t offering such experiences.

Of the students who scored in the proficient range, 56 percent said that teachers relied on a textbook every day, and another 27 percent said they used the text one or two times a week. By contrast, only 4 percent said they engaged in debates once or twice a week, and only 3 percent said they participated in mock trials that often.

Tough Test

The NAEP achievement levels have come under criticism as being too ambitious. For example, to be considered at the basic level, a high school senior must be able to articulate that the U.S. Constitution requires majority rule in most cases, but includes protections for members of minority groups and for individuals from a potentially tyrannical majority.

“The standard for proficiency is high,” Ms. Ravitch said. “But it is not unreasonable. It expects students to have a sure grasp of the facts of American government and the principles of American democracy, and then to apply these facts and principles in taking and defending positions on particular public issues.”

The scores on the civics test are similar to those for other subjects.

On the 1996 NAEP mathematics exam, 62 percent of 4th graders ranked at or above basic, while 61 percent of 8th graders and 69 percent of high school seniors reached that level. (“Students Post Higher NAEP Math Scores,” March 5, 1997.)

In the 1998 reading test, 62 percent of 4th graders, 74 percent of 8th graders, and 77 percent of 12th graders scored at or above the basic level. (“U.S. Students Bounce Back in Reading,” Feb. 17, 1999.)

Researchers are working to decipher whether students’ civics knowledge has improved since 1988—the only other time NAEP tested students in the subject.

Because the 1988 and 1998 tests are not exactly the same, the results on the 300-point scale are not entirely comparable. But NAEP researchers did offer a separate test to a smaller sample of students that was made up of questions from the 1988 exam, according to Peggy G. Carr, the associate commissioner for assessment for the National Center for Education Statistics, the arm of the Department of Education that runs the NAEP program.

The results, available next spring, will give a longitudinal perspective on whether civics knowledge has improved or diminished over the decade, Ms. Carr said.

The NAEP civics exam did not produce scores for individual states. The national assessment, often called the nation’s report card, provides state-by-state scores for reading, writing, math, and science, but not other subjects.

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