Recently published test scores reveal that a near abysmal amount of eighth-grade students are proficient in U.S. history and civics.

The test scores posted by the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, show that in 2022, only 13% of eighth-grade students were proficient in U.S. history, and 22% of them were proficient in civics. These scores are at record lows since the tests were first administered in the 1990s. They’re also the first test scores released by the NAEP since the pandemic.

While the U.S. history courses measure a student’s understanding of the nation’s background, the civics courses assess a student’s knowledge of the American government and how to be an involved citizen. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) defines the proficient level as students who “demonstrate solid academic achievement performance and competency over challenging subject matter.” The measure is not directly linked to grade proficiency. 

Kerry Sautner from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia wasn’t surprised by the low scores after seeing the poor scores in math and reading in the fall. “When we saw the reading scores drop, it kind of felt like, ‘well, that’s a little prelude to what you’re going to see in civics and history,’” she said.

Sautner noted that civics and history are based on reading comprehension, so if that area is lacking, then it’s nearly impossible to do anything else. Since students are struggling in so many areas, she wondered, “How are we going to mitigate this when we have significant drops in everything?”

Every four years, NAEP assesses eighth-graders’ proficiency in U.S. history and civics, which are taken from a sampling of the nation’s schools. U.S. history scores had been on a steady, slow increase since the test was first given in 1994. But, scores started dropping in 2018, and have continued to do so. In 2018, 15% of students were considered proficient, whereas in 2022 it’s down to 13%.

Additionally for history, 40% of students were below the basic level in 2022 compared to 36% in 2018. NCES describes the basic level as showing “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills fundamental for proficient work at each grade.”

Civics test scores then experienced a notable drop since 1998. There was also a small decrease from 2014 to 2018. Thirty-one percent of students were below the basic level in 2022, whereas 27% were below basic in 2018.

The national reading score has been in decline—but Peggy Carr, the commissioner of the NCES, believes that the low test scores in U.S. history and civics are due to a lack of critical thinking skills.

“Students have to be able to read and know literacy skills, but they need critical thinking to know how to extrapolate an answer to [a specific] question,” Carr shared.

Carr said teachers need to get more history content in front of students, especially since fewer are opting for history-focused classes. According to NCES, 68% of eighth graders took U.S. history-focused classes in 2022, which was 4% less than in 2018.

“Self-government depends on each generation of students leaving school with a complete understanding of the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship,” Carr said.

Carr went on, “But far too many of our students are struggling to understand and explain the importance of civic participation, how American government functions, and the historical significance of events. These results are a national concern.”

In response to the scores, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona noted the impact of the pandemic and called for more education funding.

“The latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress further affirms the profound impact the pandemic had on student learning in subjects beyond math and reading,” he said. “It tells us that now is not the time for politicians to try to extract double-digit cuts to education funding, nor is it the time to limit what students learn in U.S. history and civics classes. We need to provide every student with rich opportunities to learn about America’s history and understand the U.S. Constitution and how our system of government works.”

Cardona concluded, “Banning history books and censoring educators from teaching these important subjects does our students a disservice and will move America in the wrong direction.”

But Nicole Neily, president of Defending Education, criticized the Biden administration for misplaced priorities that have hurt students.

“The spin from the Biden Administration on student’s abysmal American History and Civics scores should give people vertigo,” Neily said. “In 2021, this Department of Education attempted to hijack a civics grant program to inject the factually incorrect 1619 Project and Ibram Kendi into schools — and just last week, the grant application focused on equity and media literacy. With such directives coming from the top, it’s little wonder that students are failing to learn the basic facts about our nation’s history.”

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