Is Your Civics Knowledge a) Advanced, b) Proficient, c) Basic, or d) Below Basic?

By Erik W. Robelen — May 05, 2011 3 min read
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The latest NAEP results are out, this time in civics, and once again the data are leading a lot of experts and public officials to be alarmed.

For the full EdWeek treatment on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress in civics, check out this story. The short version is:

• 12th graders declined slightly, with 24 percent “proficient” or above.
• 8th graders stayed flat, with 22 percent proficient or above.
• 4th graders climbed slightly, with 27 percent proficient or above.

It occurs to me that so often we throw out this data without giving readers a very clear sense of what students are being asked to do. I can’t get very deep into that here, but I can at least provide a sampling of questions from the latest NAEP exam in civics. I’ll even include the percentage of students nationally who got the right answer.

One quick caveat: To keep this simple, I’m generally avoiding some of the longer and more involved questions that may require reading a paragraph or two and then answering questions. So, not all of the questions are as cut and dried as the ones I’ve supplied below. Also, if you want to take a closer look for yourself, you can see quite an extensive sampling of questions here.

Without further ado:

4th grade:
Which of the following does the United States Constitution do?
a) It outlines the boundaries of our states.
b) It tells us when our national holidays are.
c) It establishes public elementary schools.
d) It gives a plan for how our government is set up.
59% answered correctly (d)

All of the following are part of the job of the President of the United States except:
a) Vetoing bills passed by Congress.
b) Commanding the armed forces.
c) Sentencing criminals to jail.
d) Appointing Supreme Court justices.
48% answered correctly (c)

Which political party does the current president belong to?
a) Green
b) Republican
c) Democratic
d) Libertarian
49% percent answered correctly (c)

8th grade:
The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution of the United States to:
a) Ensure that the federal government would be run by a system of checks and balances
b) Set up two parties that would share control of the federal government
c) Establish and protect various civil liberties
d) Guarantee that large states would not overpower smaller ones
46% answered correctly (c)

The United States and Japan disagree most about:
a) Growing power of the Japanese military
b) Openness of Japanese markets to American products
c) Need to give aid to underdeveloped countries
d) Number of Japanese who can immigrate to the United States
23% answered correctly (b)

The First Amendment guarantees people in the United States the right to:
a) Own property
b) Own firearms
c) Speak freely
d) A fair trial
74% answered correctly (c)

12th grade:
One explanation for the large number of interest groups in the United States is that:
a) there is little enforcement of laws forbidding their existence
b) members of these groups can easily get to see the President and justices of the Supreme Court
c) the tax code forbids taxing any interest group
d) there is a wide variety of religions, occupations, and beliefs in the country
74% answered correctly (d)

These last two questions I’m including get beyond the dreaded multiple-choice format. As you’ll see, the answers are rated on the degree to which they are deemed complete and accurate, or not.

In the space below, list two responsibilities of United States citizens.
Unacceptable answer 8%, Partial 32%, Complete 51%, Omitted 8%

Television has powerfully influenced the political process. In the space below, give one positive and one negative impact that television has on the political process.
Complete 27%, Partial 38 %, Unacceptable 31%, Omitted 3%

So, Dear Reader, are you proficient?

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