Eighth-graders’ scores on national U.S. history and geography tests have declined since 2014, while their performance in civics has held steady at the basic level, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress results released Thursday.
"Right now, the value of history, geography and civics is quite clear," Lesley Muldoon, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets NAEP policy, said on a press call. "Everyone needs to understand the world around us and our role in it."
In U.S. history, scores fell in all four topic areas covered by the assessment — democracy, culture, the role of the U.S. in the world and the impact of technology. Between 1994 and 2014, the last time the assessment was given, performance had been gradually increasing in all of the areas except technology.
Between 1994 and 2014, average scores on the 500-point scale were trending upward, from 259 to 267, but have now fallen to 263, which is in the basic range on the scale, described by Peggy Carr, associate commissioner for the assessment division at the National Center for Education Statistics, as "grade-level performance" and "partial mastery" of the more challenging material needed to reach NAEP's proficient level.
That means, for example, 8th-graders can identify the work available to most freed Southern slaves following the Civil War, but they’re less likely to provide one or more consequences of an important Supreme Court decision during the Reconstruction era.
And after steadily increasing for all racial/ethnic groups — and for both males and females — scores decreased in 2018 for white, black and Hispanic students, as well as for both sexes.
Except for students performing above the proficient level of 294, the decline in scores was statistically significant — and might also be a reflection of how much time students spend studying the subject. For example, 25% of lower-performing students reported they frequently “examine the causes and effects of important events in U.S. history,” compared to 56% of the highest-performing students.
"Social studies instructional time, course requirements and resources have been gradually declining since the standardization movement and the subject's value diminished with each educational policy initiative that pushed civics, history and geography out of the K-8 curriculum," responded Tina Heafner, president of the National Council for the Social Studies. "There are also fewer professional learning resources and opportunities for teachers in social studies as compared to [English language arts], math and science."
Carr called the decrease in U.S. history scores "pervasive," and noted the drop among the lowest-performing students reflects a similar pattern seen in 8th grade reading scores.
"You’ve got to read," she said about the history assessment. "You have to have that fundamental skill under your belt before you can even discern what you’re being asked to do."
But Joel Breakstone, director of the Stanford History Education Group at Stanford University, noted complaints about low scores on U.S. history exams — dating back long before NAEP — demonstrate not only how the subject is "under-prioritized" when compared to math and reading, but that the model for assessing the subject, largely multiple-choice questions, is "divorced" from the discipline itself and doesn't ask students to do "historical thinking."
'A sense of the impact'
Carr also addressed the impact of the pandemic on both the NAEP program and scheduled international assessments. NAEP's long-term trend assessment of 17-year-olds in reading and math has been delayed for a year, but the reading, math, civics and U.S. history assessments planned for 2021 are expected to take place.
"We think it is more important than ever to have a sense of the impact of COVID-19 on students' performance and achievement," Carr said.
Carr added NCES was in discussions with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development over whether to delay the next round of testing in the Program for International Student Assessment program, which was to begin this spring.
A quarter of 8th-graders proficient in geography
The NAEP geography test was also first administered in 1994. By 2014, there was relatively no change in average student performance.
But with the 2018 results, the average score has dropped to 258, below the baseline score of 260. Overall, 25% of students score in the proficient range, a decline from 28% at that level in 1994.
The geography assessment, however, is one of the subject areas the National Assessment Governing Board has taken off the assessment schedule through 2029 to save time and money. For NAGB, the decision to drop geography, along with the arts and economics for now, keeps the focus on “its flagship national assessments of reading and mathematics, which are mandated by Congress, and prioritizes the information needs of the nation that NAEP is uniquely positioned to provide,” the board’s statement said.
But, Carr added, the decision doesn't mean the geography assessment won't be back in the future.
Overall scores in geography dropped in two of the three related content areas: space and place (which is related to particular places on Earth) and environment and society (which focuses on how people depend on and adapt to their environment). But performance was stable in the spatial dynamics and connections category.
Between 1994 and 2014, gaps between white and black students and white and Hispanic students were narrowing, with black and Hispanic students making more gains in scores than their white peers. With the latest scores, however, performance dropped for both white and black students.
At the basic level, students can use a congressional district map to analyze the population density of a state, but they’re less likely to name a positive or negative effect of urbanization or identify an urban heat island using a temperature gradient map and explain why it’s warmer than less-developed areas.
Interestingly, the 63% of students who responded they have a specific class on geography, or a class that includes the subject, scored lower than those who reported not having a class that covered these topics. Carr explained that "quirky" finding by noting students who take a course devoted to geography in the 8th grade tend to be lower-performing students overall.
White-Hispanic gap narrows in civics
The NAEP assessment in civics was first given in 1998, when 22% of students scored at or above the proficient level. Since then, the average score has increased overall from 150 to 154 on a 300-point scale, with 24% reaching the proficient level.
By 2014, the last time the assessment was given, scores for students at the lower and middle ranges of achievement were improving, while those at the top of the distribution were relatively flat. With 2018, however, scores for the lowest-performing students have dropped the most of all groups since 2014.
Scores for black male students increased significantly between 1998 and 2014, from 156 to 165, and the gap between white and Hispanic students has narrowed over time, from a difference of 31 points to a difference of 21.
At the basic level, students are likely to correctly answer that a photograph of the 1963 March on Washington represents individuals exercising their right of free assembly, but they’re less likely to explain how public protests can accomplish political objectives or evaluate how a statement criticizing the government expresses patriotism.
Less than a quarter of 8th-graders report having a teacher whose primary responsibility is teaching civics or U.S. government. But those who did scored six points higher than peers without a civics teacher — 159, compared to 153.
In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on making civics a larger part of curriculum. For example, the Civics Education Initiative tracks how many states have added passage of the U.S. citizenship test as a requirement for high school graduation.
But Lawrence Paska, executive director of NCSS, said "the continued reduction — or outright elimination — of social studies instructional time in elementary grades" is what is driving low performance across student groups by the end of 8th grade and is likely to "further negatively impact student achievement by grade 12."
Calls for a 'new approach'
In history, some teacher educators argue students need a more "active learning approach" focused on primary source documents rather than textbooks.
“As the U.S. prepares to celebrate the 250th anniversary of its independence six years from now, in 2026, a new approach to teaching history and civics could solve this crisis,” Jeffrey Sikkenga, executive director of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio, said in a statement.
Breakstone added there have been "encouraging changes" in curriculum and a movement toward "inquiry-based instruction" that goes beyond asking students to recall names, dates and facts.
"Across the board there are changes happening in terms of how we are thinking of assessment in history," he added. "That's something that is overdue."