Scores nationwide testing eighth graders’ understanding of U.S. history continued a decade of decline in 2022 and fell for the first time in civics, according to data released Tuesday.
Only 13% of students scored proficient in history and only 22% scored proficient in civics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress; 40% of students scored below the basic level of knowledge in U.S. history, a decline from 34% in 2018.
The implication is a large proportion of students lacking a strong foundation and understanding of the subjects are entering high schools where civics and history are facing highly politicized debates over content and instruction. Some California teachers are toning down or avoiding vigorous discussions to avoid contention.
“There are a number of schools implementing outstanding history and civics programs for youth in California and across the nation. But sadly, they are the exception and not the norm,” said Michelle Herczog, coordinator of history and social science instruction for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. “The dismal NAEP findings need to be a call to action for every American school, beginning in kindergarten, to energize the teaching of U.S. history and civics in non-partisan ways, as an educational priority.”
Said Leslie Muldoon, executive director of the National Assessment governing board, an independent body that sets policy for NAEP: “Schools at all grade levels have a core role to play in instruction around citizenship, knowledge and skills.”
The drop in results was not surprising; 2022 scores released last fall in math and reading plummeted in fourth and eighth grade nationally and, to a lesser extent, in California.
“Given what we already know about how Covid affected students’ reading and math skills, I think it’s important to emphasize the disruption caused by the pandemic,” said Martin West, the academic dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a member of NAEP’s governing board.
But, he said, noting that U.S. history scores fell by a similar amount between 2014 and 2018, “I think it would be a mistake to say that this is all about the pandemic and not try to identify other factors that could be affecting students’ performance.”
While more than 100,000 students nationwide took the 2022 NAEP math and reading tests, only 7,800 eighth graders from 410 schools took the test in civics, and 8,000 eighth-graders from 410 schools took the history test — too few to provide results by state.
Based on a scale of 300 points, the average civics score of 150 in 2022 was 2 points lower than in 2018 and equal to the score in 1998, the first year for civics using the current framework. It is 28 points below the level designating proficiency.
Based on a scale of 500 points, the average eighth-grader’s U.S. history score was 258, a significant 5-point drop from 263 in 2018 and not significantly different from 259 in 1994, the first year the test was given. It is also 36 points below the level designating proficiency.
Lower scores in history especially were widespread and profound, covering all racial and ethnic groups and all student achievement groups except for the highest achievers, the top 10% of performers. Their scores in history and civics held steady, another indication of the widening gap of achievement between the lowest and highest performing students that also were prevalent in math and reading. In civics, scores of students in the lowest 10th and 25th percentiles of performance fell, while scores didn’t drop among the top quarter of students.
“The top half of students are OK by the historical measure of bad performance, but the bottom half got worse, dragging down the distribution,” said another NAEP board member, Eric Hanushek, an economist and senior fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “This reinforces our concern about polarization in general knowledge and views of civics and history among the next generation.”
Several factors could be at play. NEAP assessments, West said, “are always much better at telling us what’s happening with students than why.”
Low scores could point to weak comprehension skills. “Schools must focus on literacy from the earliest grades and sustain reading and background knowledge through middle school and beyond,” said Muldoon.
In 2022, there was a small drop in the proportion of eighth grade students who took a course primarily focused on U.S. history compared with four years earlier. Those students scored 12 points higher than students who took a course with only some U.S. history and 14 points higher than students who didn’t take a U.S. history course.
“We also know that there have been various pressures on schools that have unfortunately led elementary schools in particular to spend more instructional time on reading and math, less on science and social studies,” West said. Instead, schools should recognize that “building students’ background knowledge in areas like history and civics is crucial for their development as readers.”
“Especially in elementary school, instructional time on different subjects is not a zero-sum game,” he said.
Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto Carvahlo, who also services on the NAEP board, agreed.
“I think there’s been a preponderance of emphasis on literacy and numeracy at the expense of other areas such as civics, such as technology. So I don’t think it’s surprising that we are looking at pretty dismal data,” he said.
What the tests measure
The U.S. history assessment measures eighth graders’ knowledge of four themes: change and continuity in American democracy; interactions of peoples, cultures and ideas; economic and technological changes and their impacts on society; and the changing role of America in the world.
The civics assessment measures knowledge about government and civil society; participatory skills essential for informed, effective and responsible citizenship; and civic dispositions that contribute to the individual effectiveness and the common good.
The assessment presents both multiple-choice and open-ended questions requiring written responses.
On the 2022 civics assessment, one question required knowledge of the Electoral College, with four options; 45% of students chose the right answer. A constructed response asked students to create rules to solve a lunchtime problem in which students hanging out in hallways were disrupting students still in classrooms; 69% of students gave a complete response explaining how their solutions would work for students and teachers.
On the 2022 U.S. history assessment, 84% of students picked correctly on a multiple-choice question asking about working conditions in a 19th-century factory. But only 6% got the full credit, needed for a proficient score, asking what two ideas from the Constitution or Declaration of Independence that Martin Luther King might have referred to in a less-known passage from his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
Hanushek acknowledged that scoring proficient on NAEP U.S history reflects a high standard, requiring a deeper understanding of knowledge, while scoring basic does not – equivalent to naming the functions of the Legislature. Scoring below basic means you cannot talk about U.S. government functions, and “that should be a concern.”
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Brenda Lebsack - Teacher 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago
According to my personal experience as a teacher reviewing Social Studies Curriculum, as a school board member (2016-2020), and currently as a state delegate of the CTA, I do not agree with Herczog's assumption, who is the coordinator of history and social science instruction for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. I do not think it's a reasonable assumption to say civics can be taught in a non-partisan way in the state … Read More
According to my personal experience as a teacher reviewing Social Studies Curriculum, as a school board member (2016-2020), and currently as a state delegate of the CTA, I do not agree with Herczog’s assumption, who is the coordinator of history and social science instruction for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. I do not think it’s a reasonable assumption to say civics can be taught in a non-partisan way in the state of California. Based on my personal experience, our Social Studies curriculum and teachings are very biased toward Democrat woke liberalism and activism.
Susan Warner 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago
Very important information. Action is needed for better standards and better professional development & enrichment for concerned teachers.
Josh B. 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago
It's encouraging to me to see an article like this because it means that many of us still believe that education, not just grades and a diploma, should be the objective we are striving for. It's bittersweet though because our California colleges have recently started accepting those grades and diplomas at face value. Maybe I should take that as a challenge that we have to up our game because, now, it's not just K-12 … Read More
It’s encouraging to me to see an article like this because it means that many of us still believe that education, not just grades and a diploma, should be the objective we are striving for. It’s bittersweet though because our California colleges have recently started accepting those grades and diplomas at face value. Maybe I should take that as a challenge that we have to up our game because, now, it’s not just K-12 students who find out later about the poor quality of their education. Now our colleges and universities have to grapple with this, and who knows what “accommodations” they will make. Administrators are administrators. After college, society will be the one to deal with the issue.
School administration needs an institutional counterweight to prevent loose grade and diploma standards. Administration’s very job is to keep things running smoothly, and if that requires “flexibility,” then it will be flexible. NAEP is good, but it’s too after-the-fact. It makes us feel bad, but it doesn’t guide our behavior when it counts – which is before credits are given and diplomas are printed.
When I was a teacher, we once had competency tests that students had to pass in order to get a diploma. For me, those were the greatest things because it put my students on I on the same side. We had a common enemy, the test, and that was a healthy dynamic to have. I would like to see that happen on a course by course and subject by subject level. It would be a big undertaking, but that is the counterweight that school administration needs.
rob 1 month ago1 month ago
Dont take it so personal…. the entire USA has fallen off a cliff in Mathematics, Science, and English as well!
Erik Kengaard 1 month ago1 month ago
Only those of limited perspective react to averages of an extremely heterogenous population
Dr. Bill Conrad 1 month ago1 month ago
The canary is long dead on the mine floor and in rigor mortis!
Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 1 month ago1 month ago
When regular teaching of civics and History is interrupted, devalued and diminished, as has been happening in K-12 public schools over the past decade or longer, it is no surprise that students quickly become know-nothings. Those same students become ignorant adults, susceptible to social media and other propaganda. They are easily influenced because they have no background to counter spurious sources of "news" and "facts." If we care about maintaining and strengthening this democracy, … Read More
When regular teaching of civics and History is interrupted, devalued and diminished, as has been happening in K-12 public schools over the past decade or longer, it is no surprise that students quickly become know-nothings. Those same students become ignorant adults, susceptible to social media and other propaganda. They are easily influenced because they have no background to counter spurious sources of “news” and “facts.” If we care about maintaining and strengthening this democracy, we will restore civics and history to their full place in the curriculum, and we might even revive the discontinued high school exit exam.
Elizabeth Silva 1 month ago1 month ago
I think part of the reason for this decline is a reflection of the increasing disrespect our society has for the founding fathers and the documents that made this country. This has been going on for years. Our history has become irrelevant and even shameful to more and more people. Just today I saw a video a restaurant patron in Fallbrook, California, made of fellow diners standing for the national anthem. Apparently the restaurant owners … Read More
I think part of the reason for this decline is a reflection of the increasing disrespect our society has for the founding fathers and the documents that made this country. This has been going on for years. Our history has become irrelevant and even shameful to more and more people.
Just today I saw a video a restaurant patron in Fallbrook, California, made of fellow diners standing for the national anthem. Apparently the restaurant owners play the national anthem daily at noon. It was the “scariest thing” she’d ever seen, she said. The ignorance of people like this, and their unwillingness to recognize the good in our history as well as the bad, is unforgivable.
Bob Becker 1 month ago1 month ago
And we have no idea how California is doing because we do not participate in NAEP Civics testing, and when we abandoned California’s STAR system we ended any statewide histroy-social science assessments.
John Fensterwald 1 month ago1 month ago
Bob, as far as I know, the Civics test is a national assessment only. Do you know otherwise?
Tom Adams 1 month ago1 month ago
While NAEP provides good information about history- social science education, it only comes every 4 years. CA did have a standards-based test for history-social science but it was discontinued. Unfortunately, no additional source of information exists to inform policy discussions and to provide a portrait of the state of social studies teaching and learning.
Dr. Bill Conrad 1 month ago1 month ago
When almost 50 million 4th grade students score below proficient on the Reading NAEP over 20 years, you may have found a strong contributor to low proficiency scores in history.
Hopefully, educators have seen the failure of their ways in pursuing the Balanced Reading boondoggle, and will now pursue evidence and science- based approaches to teaching reading! It might help!
Reading must be Job #1 in California.
It would be nice if our state education leaders would weigh in! No?
John Trasvina, CA Senior Advisor 1 month ago1 month ago
California’s State Seal of Civic Engagement recognizes high school students who have the academic training in civics and history and apply what they learn to participate in their communities.
Generation Citizen backs Assembly Member Mia Bonta’s AB 1520 that paves the way to equip more school districts and to train teachers to offer programs to advance civic learning. The NAEP report underscores the need for concerted action.
Erik Kengaard 1 month ago1 month ago
Generalizations with reference to student performance in California are irritating, misleading and a turnoff. Performance varies by community, and meaningful reporting requires analysis at the community level.
Dr. Lisa Lace 1 month ago1 month ago
Did we expect anything else? California keeps pushing for fake history to be taught to demonize the history of the United States. If we want test scores to go up, we need to put fake questions about the fake history we are forced to teach! Or we could go back to teaching actual US History?