Students need to learn their civics

Results are in from the 2010 NAEP civics assessment of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, and they were not very encouraging. According to NAEP, the civics assessment measures “…the civics knowledge and skills that are crucial to the responsibilities of citizenship in America’s constitutional democracy.”

Overall, the results showed little improvement in students’ civic knowledge in skills since 2006.  Only our nation’s 4th graders scored significantly higher in 2010 than in 2006. Our 8th graders didn’t score significantly different, and our 12th graders performed significantly worse.

The only bright spots in the report were the facts that all racial groups (white, black, Hispanic, and Asian) scored significantly higher in 2010 than in 1998 and that the white-Hispanic achievement gap narrowed for all three grade levels when compared to 1998 and 2006 (except for the 4th grade between 2006 and 2010).

Taken together, the report shows that significant progress needs to be made in civics education so our students are better prepared to participate in our democracy. The foundation for participation is knowing how our government operates and knowing the procedures of how to actually participate. On both fronts, the NAEP results clearly show that too many of our students are lacking knowledge in these areas. Such lack of knowledge can have a detrimental impact on the future of our democracy.

Here are some of the major findings from the report:

Fourth Grade

  • Overall scores were significantly higher in 2010 (157) compared to 2006 (154) and 1998 (150).
  • Seven-seven percent of 4th graders scored at or above NAEP’s basic level.
    • For instance, this means they could at least recognize taxes as the main source of government funding.
  • Just 27 percent scored at or above NAEP’s proficient level.
    • Students at this level are able to identify one of the purposes of the U.S. Constitution.
  • NAEP reported that less than half the students assessed had teachers who emphasized to a moderate or large extent one of these topics: Politics and Government (42 percent), Foundations of U.S. Democracy (44 percent), The U.S. Constitution (39 percent), World Affairs (21 percent), or Roles of Citizens in U.S. Democracy (45 percent).
    • Students who had teachers who emphasized these topics to at least some extent typically scored higher in those areas.

Eighth Grade 

  • Overall scores were not significantly different in 2010 (151) compared to 2006 (150) and 1998 (150).
  • Seven-two percent of 8th graders scored at or above NAEP’s basic level.
    • This means they could at least identify a right protected by the First Amendment.
  • Just 22 percent scored at or above NAEP’s proficient level.
    • Students at the proficient level could recognize a role performed by the Supreme Court.
  • The vast majority (85 percent) of 8th graders learned about civics in 2010. Those students who did scored 3 points higher than those students who did not learn about civics in the 8th grade.
    • The majority of 8th graders learned about the U.S. Constitution (82 percent), Congress (78 percent), How Laws are Made (70 percent), and Political Parties, Elections, and Voting (75 percent).
    • However, 8th graders were less likely to be taught about Other Countries’ Governments (40 percent) or International Organizations like the United Nations (33 percent).

Twelfth Grade

  • Overall scores were significantly lower in 2010 (148) compared to 2006 (151), but similar to 1998 (150).
  • Sixty-four percent of 12th graders scored at or above NAEP’s basic level.
    • At this level, they could interpret a political cartoon.
  • Just 24 percent scored at or above NAEP’s proficient level.
    • Students at this level are able to define the term “melting pot” and argue if it applies to the U.S.
  • Nearly all (97 percent) 12th graders studied civics or government in high school.
    • Those students who studied civics and government scored 16 points higher than students who did not.
  • Fewer students were taught the U.S. Constitution in 2010 (67 percent) than in 2006 (72 percent).
    • The majority of 12th graders learn about Congress (66 percent), How Laws are Made (61 percent), and Political Parties, Elections, and Voting (68 percent).
    • However, just as with 8th graders, 12th graders were less likely to be taught about Other Countries’ Governments (47 percent) or International Organizations like the United Nations (43 percent).

For more information on NAEP, read “The proficiency debate” at  www.centerforpubliceducation.org.

–Jim Hull

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