Will Dismal New National Test Results in Civics and History Finally Spark Improvements?

Weak standards, poorly prepared teachers, and meager instructional time contribute to bleak outcomes

Text illustration about NAEP civics test

Aaargh. Here we go again. The new National Assessment of Educational Progress civics and history results are as deplorable as they were predictable. Whether they’ll also serve as the action-forcer that we need is far from certain. Is this to be a “Sputnik moment” on the civics front or another yawner?

NAEP has been testing U.S. history since 1994, civics since 1998, and the results have always been bleak. At its peak in 2014, the “Nations Report Card” showed a meager 18 percent of eighth graders to be “proficient” in history while 22 percent reached that threshold in civics. Year after year, assessment after assessment, those two key subjects have reaped the lowest scores of anything tested by NAEP.

Declines in both set in after 2014—well before Covid hit—and it was inevitable that post-pandemic scores would be even worse. Now we’re essentially back to the starting line, i.e. around the same levels as when these subjects were first reported by NAEP. And (as we’ve recently seen in reading and math) the declines are worst among low-scoring students, which is to say those who possess the least knowledge and skills in history and civics have experienced the most severe losses.

What’s doubly troubling—but perhaps doubly attention-getting—is that this has happened just as many in the education and policy worlds are striving to launch a renaissance in civics, citizenship and the historical understandings that must undergird them.

Any number of organizations and projects are working at this. (I’ve been engaged with several, including the estimable Educating for American Democracy venture and its “roadmap for excellence in history and civics.”) They’re responding not just to test scores but also—even more so—to the troubled state of the polity, the erosion of good citizenship, the travails of civil society, and loss of faith in the fundamental institutions and processes of our constitutional democracy.

Educating schoolkids in civics and history is in no way the whole solution to these deep-seated problems but it has to be part of any solution—and evidence abounds that we’re doing a lousy job of it. The new NAEP results just underscore the blunt fact that the vast majority of U.S. 8th graders don’t know squat about U.S. history or civics.

But why? I’m seeing five big contributing factors:

First, most states have lousy standards for these core subjects, meaning that their expectations for what K-12 students should learn are low, vague or otherwise lacking. My Fordham colleagues demonstrated this in a voluminous 2021 report that found just five jurisdictions (four states plus DC) with “exemplary” standards in both subjects. It’s true that standards alone don’t teach anybody anything, but it’s also true that if you don’t have a clear destination for your journey you could wander forever and get nowhere.

Second, weak standards are part of a larger “infrastructure” problem in social studies education, admirably documented in a recent RAND study. Although focused on the elementary grades, the failings itemized in that analysis—which include incoherent curricula, lack of teacher support, meager instructional time, ill-prepared teachers, an absence of accountability—apply pretty much across the entire span of K-12 schooling.

Third, curricular materials in this field—with history and civics often submerged in a “social studies” muddle that may be as much about pop-sociology and psychology as essential information and analytic skills—are mostly mediocre, the good ones are little used, and some popular texts are pretty awful. Check out EdReports and the What Works Clearinghouse and you’ll find the curricular cupboards barren for history and civics, this despite the fact that excellent tools exist by which to evaluate such curricula. And the culture wars and political posturings that have recently engulfed curricular deliberations are nowhere livelier than in the realm of social studies, although I’ve also called attention to a latent consensus across much of the land regarding what schools should teach in this realm.

Fourth, many teachers don’t know much about these subjects themselves. Typical certification requirements for social studies teachers include a smattering of “content” courses in any of the half-dozen disciplines that fall under this heading, but persons obtaining such certificates are then deemed qualified to teach any of those subjects. Which is to say a history teacher may have studied very little history and a civics teacher (who may also be the gym teacher) could have majored in anthropology.

Fifth, little time is devoted to history and civics over thirteen years of schooling and few schools or students are held to account for how well these subjects are learned. Though we routinely term them part of the “core curriculum” along with ELA, math and science, we don’t give them nearly as much attention as the other three and we’re far less likely to insist on any evidence of learning beyond, say, a passing grade in high school history and civics. It’s no help that few colleges pay attention to whether their applicants know anything about history or civics and almost none requires its own students to study these subjects. (Stanford is requiring freshman year civics as of next year.)

Is there hope? The bleak NAEP results could serve as a firebell in the night, the alarm we need to catalyze purposeful action, overcome our divisions and quell, at least for a moment, the curricular culture wars.

It’s not beyond imagining. Legislative action can already be glimpsed in many places and innumerable groups are actively promoting civics and history reforms of one kind or another. Advice abounds as to how to strengthen these elements of K-12 schooling.

My own advice is implicit in the five causes of decline that are spelled out above, as each implies its own remedy: Solid standards, robust infrastructure, quality curricula, well-prepared teachers, time-on-task, results-driven accountability. It’s really not rocket science.

But one more thing more is also crucial: we must improve our diagnostics, starting with NAEP itself. Why do we have history and civics results for 8th grade but not for 4th or (especially) 12th? It’s the end of K-12 when we most need solid data on what students have and have not learned. And why do we have only national data, not the state-level results that might drive serious action at the level that matters most? NAEPsters will offer all manner of explanations, starting with budget, but the fact remains that—here as everywhere—the problems likeliest to go unsolved are those that are poorly diagnosed in the first place. What we got from NAEP this week is necessary but in no way sufficient for a thorough diagnosis, the kind that points toward better targeted treatments.

That all this matters to the nation’s future is self-evident. That we will go beyond garment-rending and teeth-gnashing is less so.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a former chair of the National Assessment Governing Board.

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