Published On: Thu, May 11th, 2023

What new civics test scores show us: We need to do more

The release this month of standardized test scores showing a drop in students’ knowledge of U.S. history and civics — more for the first than the second — was hardly unexpected, given that test scores in all subjects have been dropping since the pandemic began in 2020. But there’s more to read into the scores than the obvious, experts in civics education say.

Students’ understanding of history and civics is worsening

The 2022 history and civics results came from the federally administered National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, which is seen as the most consistent, nationally representative measure of U.S. student achievement since the 1990s. NAEP evaluates students on three basic achievements levels — basic, proficient and advanced — that do not correlate with grade-level achievement, its website says. Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees the NAEP exams in reading, math, civics, history and other subjects, has said that grade level aligns more with the basic NAEP level.

Forty percent of eighth-grade students scored below the basic level in U.S. history, meaning, in NAEP terms, below grade level, with 13 percent at or above the proficient level, meaning that they demonstrated “solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter.” In 2018, 15 percent of eighth-graders reached or exceeded proficiency.

In civics in 2022, 31 percent of eighth-graders were below basic and 22 percent were at or above the proficient level. In 2018, 24 percent scored proficient or above.

NAEP scores in both subjects are now comparable to what they were in the 1990s.

This post, written by Shawn Healy and Louise Dubé, looks at the issue of civics education. Dubé is executive director of iCivics, a nonprofit that provides educational online games and lesson plans to promote civics education and encourage students to become active citizens. Healy is senior director for state policy and advocacy at iCivics. He leads the organization policy and advocacy work at the state level through the CivXNow Coalition, while overseeing civic education campaigns in several key states.

By Shawn Healy and Louise Dubé

The release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics confirmed what we already know: The nation is failing to prioritize teaching civics.

The top-line data show a staggering knowledge gap when it comes to understanding how this country’s constitutional democracy is supposed to work and how to apply that knowledge, as only 22 percent of eighth-graders tested proficient or above on the assessment.

These results are very poor and emblematic of the ambivalence our nation has shown toward teaching civics over many decades.

But a deeper look into the data provided by the assessment commonly known as “the nation’s report card” actually shows us what we need to do to fix this problem.

What we know about civic education

A robust civic education moves beyond simply giving students information. Yes, civics is rooted in deep foundational knowledge. But a modern civic education also provides the opportunity for students to develop the kinds of skills necessary for a healthy democracy — from understanding how to engage with this country’s institutions, to information literacy, civil disagreement and discourse.

Like with the vast majority of subjects, students should also have the opportunity to put into practice what they learn. For our youngest students, this generally comes from starting to understand their class as a community for which they can help establish norms, rules and responsibilities. For older students, experiences might include mock trials or youth and government programs, school elections or discussing current events and issues.

When this is done well, a decades-long body of research shows a positive impact on young people both within and outside of the classroom. Those with a civic education are more likely to vote and discuss politics, more confident in their ability to both speak publicly and interact with elected officials, and they are four times more likely to volunteer and work on community issues, all according to the seminal Guardian of Democracy report.

The results of the NAEP civics assessment confirm this and give us a prescription for moving forward.

We need more classroom time for civics

Only seven states require a full year of civics or government for high school, only seven have stand-alone civics requirements for middle school, and most elementary schools allot only a half-hour per week to the social studies.

Not surprisingly, only 49 percent of eighth-graders who took the most recent NAEP civics exam said that they have a class that is mainly focused on civics or U.S. government, and only 29 percent said they had a teacher whose primary responsibility is teaching civics. Importantly, students who learned about civics in a designated class outperformed (157 average scale score out of 300) those who had civics embedded in another class (153) and those with no civics instruction (143).

How we teach our students matters

NAEP civics clearly shows that we must allocate more time to civics. Students who studied the U.S. Constitution “a lot” outperformed students at all other dosages — and by a 15-point difference compared with those who didn’t have the opportunity to study this foundational document at all. Teachers for whom civics and U.S. government are their primary responsibility saw their students outperform students whose teachers have a broader or different focus.

But the way in which civics is taught has an even more considerable effect:

  • The use of primary source materials daily or almost daily correlated with a 21-point boost in student performance compared with those whose instruction never used primary sources.
  • A 12-point boost was seen among students who partook in simulations such as role playing and mock trials four to five times per year.
  • Students who took part in debates or panel discussions at least two or three times a year outperformed those never exposed to this practice by eight points.

Better trained teachers yield better student performance

For years, we have known that pre- and in-service professional development for social studies and civics must improve. The NAEP civics further affirms this, showing that teachers who have confidence in their ability to explain the importance of participation in the political process and government correlates with a 35-point difference in student performance. The NAEP civics also shows that teacher dispositions are essential to students’ civic development as evidenced by the 16-point difference in student performance between those whose teachers view “concern about state and local issues as an important responsibility” and those whose teachers do not.

Parent and community involvement matter

NAEP civics shows what we’ve always known and encouraged — parent involvement in student learning, particularly around civics, is key. Kids need trusted adults in their life modeling and teaching civics and creating environments in which their children can become civically engaged:

  • Students who talk about their studies at home two to three times per week outperformed those who never or hardly ever talk about them by 20 points on the NAEP civics.
  • Those who are attentive to news outside of school outperform those who never follow the news by 19 points.
  • Those who volunteer outperformed those who never volunteer by 10 points.

Thankfully, a movement to improve civic education is taking root. Amid strong support from both Republicans and Democrats for increased funding and time for civics in the classroom, initiatives such as Educating for American Democracy are showing early promise in providing excellence in civics and history education. States are taking up the call, with 16 of them adopting bipartisan policies advancing civics education in the last biennium. The federal government has increased its allocation for civic education at the end of 2022 from $7.75 million to $23 million.

The release of NAEP civics rightly sounded alarms. But the headline should be: “We need to do more.” Here is the prescription: All states must mandate sufficient classroom time and funding for history and civics; and Congress should pass the bipartisan, bicameral Civics Secures Democracy Act as well as the administration’s proposal for an additional $50 million for civics and history education.

What civics education should really look like

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