some surprising results from the 2010 NAEP Civics assessment

The headline in The New York Times says: Failing Grades on Civics Exam Called a ‘Crisis’. Whether that’s how you read the data is a matter of opinion, but I can shed a little light on the source.

The National Assessment in Educational Progress in Civics is our best measure of what students know about civic, legal, and political concepts and facts. It is a no-stakes test of a representative sample of almost 20,000 American students. It assesses knowledge and skills that are relevant to civic participation, but they are fairly academic skills of individuals, not skills that people commonly use in groups. For instance, students may be asked to interpret the text of a speech, but not run a meeting.

The NAEP Civics assessment has been given only sporadically but is now on a regular three-year cycle. I was on the committee responsible for the 2010 assessment and will help again with the 2013 version. I would describe it as a rather hard test which most adults would badly flunk. It is closely tied to academic content in American history and government, so you have to recall quite a few Supreme Court decisions and constitutional principles to do well.

Today, the results were released for 2010. In brief, 4th graders improved their mean scores, whereas scores for 8th and 12th graders did not change. This is interesting because our research has found that time devoted to civics shrank recently in the early grades but not in the later grades, where the number of credits earned in social studies actually rose.

To be specific, time spent on civics or social studies shrank in the first through fifth grades from 1999-2004. (We don’t know what happened after that.) Yet fourth-grade NAEP civics scores rose from 1998 to 2006 and again from 2006 to 2010.

According to the NAEP, 97 percent of twelfth-graders report that they have studied civics or government in high school. That is consistent with other research that finds most kids study the topic. It means that the solution to our concerns about civic knowledge should not be to require civics. It is already being studied. On the other hand, the high dropout rate means that a 12th grade assessment misses almost one third of our young people, and many of the dropouts received little civics education.

A closer look at the 12th grade results shows that most of our graduating seniors can identify an argument made in Marbury v. Madison or explain part of the Fourteenth Amendment. But very few can summarize the views of Reagan and Roosevelt on economics or compare the citizenship requirements of the US to other countries. They seem to score better on questions concerning constitutional and legal issues than on political matters.

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