Even as online learning grows, America’s students struggle with U.S. history, civics

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In classrooms across the country, students work on laptops and other devices connected to the internet. Photo by Flickr user Jeff Peterson

In classrooms across the country, students work on laptops and other devices connected to the internet. Photo by Flickr user Jeff Peterson

The most recent scores of eighth graders on national tests of U.S. history, geography and civics show students’ command of those subjects haven’t increased since the tests, part of a suite of exams known as the Nation’s Report Card, were last given in 2010.

Just 18 percent of the nationally representative sample of eighth graders who took the tests in 2014 scored at a level considered proficient in U.S. history, 27 percent reached that level in geography and 23 percent did so in civics.

The percentage of students scoring at proficient ticked up just one point since 2010 for history and civics and was flat for geography.

The results prompted some concern among civics education organizations.

“The Nation’s Report Card, is a difficult and complex test that successfully measures some key areas of civic learning and how well civics is taught,” Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at Tufts University, wrote in a statement. “However, as the new Nation’s Report Card: 2014 shows, we are far from achieving an acceptable quality or equality of civics education.”

When it comes to student scores, white students saw modest gains in their average scores in U.S. history and civics, while Hispanic students’ average scores increased in history and geography. The percent of students scoring in the lowest category, below basic, also fell slightly on each exam.

What the test data does show is how classrooms have changed since 2010.

The percent of students reporting that they read material from textbooks fell by 8 or 9 percent for each subject area but remained above 60 percent. The percent of students listening to online presentations or reading letters and other documents of historic people in U.S. history classes increased to nearly a quarter. The percent using a computer at school for social studies also increased to 25 percent.

Another change was that just 23 percent of teachers administering the exams reported having taken a college-level course in any of the three subjects after completing their certification coursework in the last two years. That was down from 29 percent in 2010.

When the next round of history, geography and civics tests are given in 2018, how students report learning in the classroom will likely see further change. But not only in the number of students accessing class-related materials online. The Common Core standards for what students should learn in English for each grade are now being used as guidelines in more than 40 states. Those standards include recommendations for teaching social studies like using more primary sources, having students write persuasive essays based on evidence found in documents and working in groups.

In 2014 fewer than 25 percent of students reported doing group work in social studies and less than 20 percent reported participating in debates or panel discussions and less than 10 percent wrote something for class that expressed an opinion.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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