Civic Education Scores Remain Stagnant
Indiana Writers Group column for May 30 and thereafter
By Andrea Neal
In 1998, right after tests revealed what one expert called “gross deficiencies” in civic knowledge of students, political leaders and educators called for immediate reform of K-12 civic education.
The latest test results are in, and nobody’s cheering. “Civics scores have remained essentially unchanged since 1998 for eighth and twelfth graders,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported May 16.
Modest gains occurred in Fourth Grade among lower-performing students, but overall results were dismal. “America’s school children are woefully unprepared to take their place as informed, engaged citizens,” said Charles N. Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education.
Despite the call for improvements after the ‘98 NAEP, few states beefed up civics requirements. In fact, says the Center, civic learning has diminished. Until the 1960s, U.S. high schools commonly provided three courses in civics and government; two of them ("Civics" and "Problems of Democracy") explored the role of citizens and encouraged students to discuss current issues. “Today those courses are very rare. What remains is a course on ‘American government’ that usually spends little time on how people can — and why they should – participate as citizens.”
That one government course is typically offered in the 12th grade and is “both too little and too late,” the Center adds. “And, it completely misses the large number of students who drop out before their senior year and who are arguably in the greatest need of understanding their rights and responsibilities as citizens.”
So just how poorly did the students do on last year’s NAEP? Only 24 percent achieved a rating of “proficient,” a fact Quigley blamed on the narrowing of curriculum that has occurred to make room for more mathematics and language arts. Those are the two subjects in which students must demonstrate mastery to comply with state and federal standards.
On the 12th Grade test, for example, students were asked to explain federalism, or power sharing between state and federal governments. Fifty-seven percent could not. Only 5 percent could explain checks on the president’s power, such as Congress’s ability to override vetoes. On the 8th Grade test, only 26 percent were able to accurately explain a passage from the Declaration of Independence. On the 4th Grade test, students were asked to identify one of the basic purposes of our government. Fifty percent answered the question correctly; 48 percent did not.
After the ’98 NAEP scores came out, experts issued a set of recommendations, including infusing civics in the social studies curriculum in the primary grades and requiring of all students a civics course in middle school as well as high school. It didn’t happen, so it’s little surprise test scores stayed stagnant.
Civic education is not easy material. It requires thoughtful teaching and opportunities for students to practice what they have learned. One model program is the Center for Civic Education’s We the People, which provides schools with textbooks, lesson plans and the chance to compete against other schools in simulated congressional hearings. These hearings probe student knowledge of constitutional issues ranging from federalism to checks and balances to separation of powers. The program is available for Fifth and Eighth Grades and high school government classes. Almost 6,000 Indiana students took part in the program during 2005-06, one of the bigger programs in the nation.
Even before the NAEP scores came out, Indiana leaders were planning to address the topic of civic education. The Indiana Bar Foundation will host a State Summit on Civic Engagement on Sept. 11 at the Indiana Historical Society in an effort to boost the profile of civic education here. The idea was hatched after a McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum survey found that more Americans (52 percent) could name two members of the Simpsons cartoon family than could name one of the freedoms listed in the First Amendment (28 percent).
Our students cannot absorb civic knowledge by osmosis. It must be taught systematically and sequentially, just like language arts and math. Unless we’re satisfied with the latest NAEP scores, we have to pay more than lip service to improving civic education.
Andrea Neal is a history teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.