Yesterday, NAEP released the results on its civics exam (see our chart below). Of the grades tested, only fourth graders showed gains―and those gains were minimal―in the last decade. Across the grades, a minority of students tested “at or above” proficient.
NAEP defines “basic”—where about 75% of students fell on this test―as “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge.” With a glance at cut scores, though, a basic score falls somewhere staggeringly short of expectations. At Grade 4, a score of 136/300 clocks in at basic. That’s a 46% percent―a solid F, if your school uses the letter grading system―on any other test. By the same measure, “proficient,” or “solid academic performance,” is cut at 59%―still an “F.” Grades 8 and 12 have similar expectations. Of course, NAEP scores aren’t designed to be reported this way, but we think it is good to be reminded from time to time of the low level of performance that terms like “basic” and “proficient” actually represent.
The NAEP test is a good one. It tests the “knowledge, intellectual and participatory skills, and civic dispositions” of American students―through questions addressing five important components:*
- What is civic life, politics and government?
- What are the foundations of the American political system?
- How does the government established by the Constitution embody the purposes, values, and principles of American democracy?
- What is the relationship of the United States to other nations and to world affairs?
- What are the roles of citizens in American democracy?
These are key questions. Who doubts that our students need to be able to earn more than a failing grade in their understanding of the underpinnings of our government and their responsibilities as citizens?
Not surprisingly, students whose teachers report emphasizing civics knowledge scored higher on the exam. Yet, apart from NAEP, few states test civic understanding. And, in a time of budget worries, states like Maryland consider these tests easy cuts. With little incentive to teach social studies under NCLB’s current testing requirements, the subject continues to lose ground to the tested subjects (English and math). In their recommendations for ESEA reauthorization, the folks at Fordham suggest mandated testing beyond English and math. An interesting, if potentially controversial, idea.
Better standards, assessments, curricula, teacher preparation―something needs to change if students are to report more than a basic knowledge of their government.
*If you’re curious, The Answer Sheet has a great run-down of the knowledge and skills tested by the exam, as well as some sample questions.