U.S. history and civics scores decline for eighth graders

By Jeremy Anderson

The U.S. Department of Education released scores for the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) eighth-grade Civics and U.S. History exams on May 3. Last given in 2018, this is the first post-pandemic administration of these tests. The results largely mirror those of the NAEP math and reading exams released in September 2022 in that there were declines in scores across nearly every student group on both exams. Civics scores declined for the first time since the initial test was given in 1998. History scores had been declining since 2014 and continued that trend in 2022. This blog post provides a broad overview of results for both exams, discusses some of the leading theories for the declines, and briefly touches on what it all means for board members.

NAEP results

The NAEP Civics exam asks questions to assess students’ knowledge and skills in democratic citizenship, government and American constitutional democracy. Scores range from 0 to 300. The nationwide average civics score dropped from 153 in 2018 to 150 in 2022. While students in the 75th and 90th percentiles of test takers experienced no statistically significant declines in scores, students in the 50th, 25th and 10th percentiles all saw three-point drops in their averages.

In a bright spot, students identified as English learners saw a seven-point gain in average scores (from 112 in 2018 to 119 in 2022).

The NAEP U.S. History exam tests students across four major themes — democracy, culture, technology and world role. Scores range from 0 to 500. Average scores in 2022 slid five points from 2018 and nine points from 2014, the first-year scores began to decline. This year’s average score (258) is nearly the same as the first year of the assessment in 1994. Like the Civics exam, score decreases were more pronounced for lower-performing students than for higher-performing students. Students in the 10th percentile of test takers had a seven-point decline (222 to 215), while those in the 90th percentile saw no significant change (301 to 299).

Among the eight racial/ethnic groups that NAEP reports on, all saw drops in scores, and four had statistically significant decreases in U.S. History (Black, Hispanic, white, two or more races). In civics, American Indian/Alaska Native students increased scores while all other groups saw decreases, though none were statistically significant. Even though scores dropped across all student groups, substantial gaps in scores remain between historically disadvantaged and advantaged groups on both exams.

Why have scores declined in both exams?

Some have pointed to pandemic-era declines in reading as playing a role. Both exams rely heavily on the assumption of strong reading comprehension to answer questions about history and citizenship. One of the most prominent theories is that U.S. history and civics are not traditionally tested or supported like math and reading. As a result, these subjects often do not receive the same level of support, programming and emphasis from state and local policymakers.

The availability of civics and U.S. history courses in elementary and middle school varies depending on the state. Many U.S. students do not have the opportunity to take classes in the subjects in which they are being tested. The NAEP includes a questionnaire in their exams to gauge local context and opportunity for both civics and U.S. history for eighth graders. Sixty-eight percent indicated they had taken a course mainly focused on U.S. history in eighth grade (down 4 percent from 2018). Only 49 percent of eighth graders reported taking a course related to civics and U.S. government. In California, eighth-grade students take their second U.S. history and geography course, which covers the American Revolution through industrialization and the early 20th century.

What does this mean for board members?

While the NAEP can provide a practical snapshot of how certain U.S. students perform nationwide, local data will always be the best tool for governance teams to assess their students’ progress in U.S. history and civics. As communities across the state are having complicated discussions surrounding how best to teach U.S. history and civics, board members will want to work with staff to understand what the district offers in these subjects and at what grades.

At the state level, California offers a State Seal of Civic Engagement to students who demonstrate excellence in civics education and participation. The seal provides students the opportunity to engage in work related California and the U.S. government in rich ways. U.S. history and civics education can be powerful tools to inform students of their role in American democracy and our nation’s past.

Jeremy Anderson is a CSBA education policy analyst in the Research and Education Policy Development Department.