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National test scores reveal US students losing proficiency in history and civics


National test scores reveal US students losing proficiency in history and civics

A group of students taking a test. An African American male student in the front center of the image with other female students in the background.

American youth aren’t making the grade in civics or history following a trend of declining achievement in math and reading, according to recent data from the largest assessment of student aptitude.

Online learning platform used data from The Nation’s Report Card to explore declining test scores for history and civics subjects in the U.S.

In 2022, The Nation’s Report Card found that the average eighth-grade U.S. history score decreased by nine points compared to 2014 and five points compared to 2018. The average civics score backslid two points from 2018—marking the first instance in the assessment’s history.

Statistically, only 13% of eighth graders performed at or above the proficient level in U.S. history and only 22% in civics, per the report.

Lower test scores are part of a global trend, partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but education experts say there are additional reasons for the civics and history slide.

Civics students learn theory, politics, and the practical study of citizenship and government, focusing on the present and future. History studies the past and how people interacted with one another.

Since the 1900s, the decline of “churches and other religious congregations, unions, metropolitan daily newspapers, and political parties as vehicles for grassroots participation that are sustained beyond specific campaigns” is to blame for the weakening of civic knowledge and interest in the U.S., according to a 2017 report published by the National Conference on Citizenship.

The report also found that 3 in 5 rural youth and almost 1 in 3 suburban and urban young people in America see their communities as civic deserts, or lacking places to meet and discuss ideas.

The declining scores coincide with more state laws limiting how teachers can discuss race and history in the classroom. The 2023 State of the American Teacher survey found that 65% of school teachers reported limiting social and political discussions in class for fear of upsetting parents.

What’s more, state requirements for civic education are minimal, often reduced to a single semester in high school.

Civics slides for the first time

Stacked bar chart illustrating the decline in 8th grade civics scores in 2022.

The Nation’s Report Card—the civics assessment for the National Assessment of Educational Progress—tracks the skills, attitudes, and knowledge needed to uphold constitutional democracy. Students are tested on knowledge, civic dispositions, and intellectual and participatory skills.

Organized into five categories, the civic knowledge section questions students on the fundamentals of civic life, the American political system, constitutional principles, international relations, and the roles of citizens in democracy.

The intellectual skills component covers three skills—identification and description, explanation and analysis, and evaluation and defense of positions—that allow people to “apply civic knowledge” in mind and deed.

Civic dispositions, the final component, assesses the student’s ability to understand the importance of personal and public character traits for maintaining and upholding American democracy.

‘America’s changing place in the world’

Stacked bar chart illustrating the decline in 8th grade history scores in 2022.

Students are typically assessed on time periods, themes, and “ways of knowing and thinking about the country’s history,” according to the NAEP report.

The digital test questioned students on four themes: change and continuity in American democracy; the gathering and interactions of peoples, cultures, and ideas; economic and technological changes and their relation to society, ideas, and the environment; and America’s changing role in the world.

Academic performance in U.S. history has two primary metrics: scale scores and NAEP achievement levels. Scale scores reflect students’ performance on the U.S. history assessment, with results aggregated and reported across various student demographics for districts, states, and the nation.

NAEP achievement levels—basic, proficient, and advanced—serve as benchmarks for the knowledge and skills students are expected to attain.

Disparities remain; reasons aren’t the same

Various line charts illustrating the racial achievement gap for students of different racial groups from 1994 to 2022.

Socioeconomic issues such as underfunded schools, family income, and education levels may partly explain the reason for lower civic and history test scores among Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous public school students. However, such a position is subject to the “chicken and egg” fallacy.

According to a 2021 research paper from The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, “research continues to show that children from marginalized communities remain less likely to be served well by civic and political institutions.”

The paper states that growing up marginalized and neglected by the American system creates and fortifies inequality, and this inequality is evident even on the first day of kindergarten. Taken as a total, children of color outnumber white public school students. For children to fully participate in democracy and civic engagement, they must feel connected to the system in their everyday lives—and in the classroom.

Story editing by Shannon Luders-Manuel. Copy editing by Paris Close. Photo selection by Ania Antecka.

This story originally appeared on and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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