Social Studies

Understanding the Sharp Drop in History and Civics NAEP Scores: 4 Things to Know

By Sarah Schwartz — May 04, 2023 6 min read
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Civics and U.S. history scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released yesterday, showing significant declines for 8th graders in both subjects.

Peggy Carr, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said she was “shocked” by the low numbers of students scoring proficient in both subjects.

Some commenters blamed a lack of instructional time and dearth of strong materials for the subjects; others claimed that English/language arts classes should incorporate more social studies content.

It’s hard to know exactly what causes NAEP score declines. The data only show how students performed; they can’t determine why.

Still, understanding the state of social studies education—and broader student achievement trends over the past few years—can help put the results in context. Here are four things to know.

Civics and history scores haven’t improved for years

Social studies teachers have said that the events of the past few years—lost instructional time during the pandemic, intense political polarization, and restrictions on what they can discuss in the classroom—have made it harder to do their jobs.

Even so, the NAEP trends predate 2020. History scores have been steadily declining since 2014, while civics scores have remained mostly flat for over a decade before 2022.

Civics and history groups have responded to these results for years with calls for increased funding and support for the subjects.

Social studies has long fought for instructional time and resources

Most middle school students study history and civics in some form.

According to the NAEP survey data, 68 percent of 8th graders said they had taken a class that was mainly focused on U.S. history; 20 percent said they had taken a class with some focus on the subject. Just about half of students said they had taken a class mainly focused on civics, while an additional 32 percent said they had taken a class with some focus.

But they may be coming into middle school with a shaky knowledge base.

Social studies is like any other subject, said Shannon Pugh, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies. “You can’t just come in at the middle of it without having some foundational knowledge and skill sets,” she said.

In elementary school, when students would be building that foundational knowledge, most of the school week is dedicated to other subjects. In 2011-12, the last year for which there is available federal data, 1st through4th grade teachers reported that they spent 2.4 hours a week on social studies, compared to 11.4 in English, 5.9 in math, and 2.5 in science.

More recent results from the RAND Corporation report slightly higher numbers. In a survey conducted during the 2021-22 school year, K-5 teachers said that the average student in their classes spends 3 hours a week in social studies—a third of the time those teachers said they spend in ELA, and less than half of the time they spend in math.

This isn’t a new trend. Surveys going back to the 1980s showed that K-5 teachers spent about 20 minutes a day on social studies, on average, compared to about 1.5 hours on English/language arts.

Still, research shows that policy changes over the past two decades have further tipped the scales.

A 2012 study found that instructional time in social studies dropped after the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act a decade earlier, which required states to test students each year in reading and math, starting in 3rd grade. The researchers found that mean instructional time in the subject decreased by 30 minutes a week.

But it’s not just time spent on instruction. Elementary teachers receive infrequent professional development in social studies, and they’re less likely to say that they have access to district-provided materials in the subject compared to ELA and math.

The pandemic intensified a lack of attention to social studies

Over the past few years, students and teachers have experienced a series of political events and social upheavals that could be discussed in a social studies classroom—historic protests against police brutality, the 2020 election, and the January 6th insurrection.

While some teachers made these connections, providing historical context and centering these events in lessons about civic processes, others found themselves up against directives to prioritize reading and math during the limited time they had face-to-face with students in remote learning.

Many learning recovery efforts are now focused squarely on math and reading as well. Again, said NCSS’ Pugh, a major reason is that these subjects are tested, while social studies generally is not.

Pugh, the director of community and school programming for Anne Arundel schools in Annapolis, Md., was part of the team in her district that developed its plan on how to spend ESSER funding. “In most cases, we had to provide pre- and post-data for our efforts, and most of that’s going to align with reading and math,” she said.

Some general support services in the district could be used for social studies, she said—like online tutoring. But when students did sign up for tutoring in the subject, they were mostly high-achieving high schoolers who wanted to prepare for Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams, she said.

Reading scores are also down

Could declines in other subjects have affected social studies? Scores fell precipitously for 8th graders on NAEP’s 2022 reading test as well.

It’s not possible from the available data to say whether one caused the other. But there is a relationship between reading skills and social studies skills in a classroom context, said Sarah McGrew, an assistant professor of teaching and learning at the University of Maryland.

“Social studies classrooms depend on, but also improve students’ reading skills,” said McGrew, who studies young people’s civic online reasoning.

In U.S. history and civics, the NAEP tests students’ factual knowledge—asking multiple choice questions, for example, about the conditions of factory work in the mid-to-late 1800s, or about how the electoral college works. It also measures students’ ability to analyze, interpret, and critique texts—skills that are also assessed on the NAEP reading test, said Ana Taboada Barber, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies reading comprehension and content-area literacy.

One question on the U.S. history test presents students with an excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, asks students to identify two ideas from the Constitution or Declaration of Independence that are referenced in the speech, and explain why King may have incorporated them.

For students to be successful on a question like that, “there’s a lot of reading that needs to happen,” said Taboada Barber.

Ideally, Taboada Barber said, social studies teachers would be able to collaborate with literacy teachers to develop approaches that give students lots of opportunities to learn subject-area content, and then analyze or apply that knowledge. Content-area literacy depends on this marriage of knowledge and skills, she said. (This relationship works in the other direction, too—students’ reading comprehension can improve when they develop knowledge about the world.)

Still, an approach that centers inquiry still isn’t the norm in many classrooms, said McGrew. “And that is not in any way blaming teachers,” she added. “Because we underinvest in social studies education, we haven’t successfully prepared teachers initially, or helped teachers who are already in service, to shift their practice.”

The heightened political climate around social studies education doesn’t help, McGrew said. “If you’re worried about your job and your standing in the community, you’re more likely to stick with what’s safe.”

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