Poor test scores reveal shortcomings in students’ understanding of history and civics

Eighth-grade U.S. history and civics test scores dropped last year to their lowest levels ever recorded by the Department of Education. These are just the latest declines among subjects tested since the pandemic. John Yang has a look at what's behind the numbers.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Eighth grade U.S. history and civics test scores dropped last year to their lowest levels ever recorded by the Department of Education.

    These are just the latest declines among subjects tested since the pandemic.

    John Yang has a look at what's behind the numbers.

  • John Yang:

    Geoff, we have talked before about the drop in math and reading scores during the pandemic. But this is our first look at eighth grade test scores for U.S. history and civics during that period.

    About 40 percent of eighth graders scored below basic in history, and a third of them scored below basic in civics.

    Patrick Kelly teaches advanced placement U.S. government in Blythewood, South Carolina, which is outside Columbia. He also sits on the Governing Board of the National Assessment of Education Progress, which administers these tests.

    Mr. Kelly, you had an op-ed piece in the — in USA Today the day these scores came out. You said you were not surprised by the results at all. Why is that?

    Patrick Kelly, Governing Board, National Assessment of Education Progress: Yes, I mean, it's one of those things where it's still disconcerting and disappointing to see the scores.

    But, as a social studies teacher, I have been doing this for 18 years. And what I have seen over the course of my career is what I will call marginalization of social studies instruction in the United States, where it's been pushed to the side to devote increased time and resources to subjects like math and reading, which, of course, are critically important.

    But when you marginalize a subject area like social studies, you can't be surprised when you see results like what we see this week on this exam.

  • John Yang:

    And what's been driving that shift?

  • Patrick Kelly:

    I think there's a lot of things that we can point to.

    I mean, one of them is very clearly around state accountability systems. In education, we tend to value what we measure. And both under No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act, states, in order to receive Title 1 funds, have to administer assessments in reading and math in grades three through eight, as well as once in high school.

    But there's never been a requirement for social studies. And especially in the last decade, I have seen states, including my own state, walk away from prioritizing that. But I think what that data shows us is instructional time and access to high-quality curriculum matters when it comes to student achievement.

  • John Yang:

    What else can be done to sort of reverse this trend?

  • Patrick Kelly:

    Students need to have dedicated time every school year to have access to high-quality social studies instruction, not on a every two- or three-year cycle, as often happens with U.S. history or civics instruction.

    They need consistent civics instruction. And we also need to really focus on recruiting our best and our brightest into teaching, period, in order to best serve our students, but especially in social studies. I think that we really need to have an urgent call to arms to get really talented individuals that are passionate about their subject, that can convey that passion to students.

  • John Yang:

    Given the drop in reading skills or reading test scores, do you think that's — there's a link there?

    Because, obviously, in history and civics, you're reading. It's critical thought. You're reading a material and absorbing it.

  • Patrick Kelly:

    Absolutely, especially on this NAEP assessment, because to score NAEP-proficient, a student really has to show command of content, but also command of skills, of analysis, of primary sources, and being able to evaluate different perspectives.

    And those are things that are connected to literacy skills. I think it also gives us a unique opportunity, when we think about enhancing social studies curriculum, to marry instruction of literacy and social studies.

    My students in AP U.S. government read what I consider to be some of the greatest works of American literature. And it's not fiction. It's "A Letter From a Birmingham Jail." It's the opinion in Brown v. Board of Education.

    These are seminal literary achievements in American society. If we infuse those into literary or reading instructional environments, we can help students find relevance in their reading instruction, while getting social studies learning during their literacy block.

  • John Yang:

    There's been a lot of emphasis in recent years on the STEM subjects, science, technology, engineering, math, and they — in terms of preparing students for the work force, for high-paying jobs and industry that's going to lift the United States.

    What's the argument for why they should know history and civics?

  • Patrick Kelly:

    When we're talking about history and civics, we're talking about our collective trajectory as a society.

    On every syllabus I have ever handed out to my AP U.S. government students, I lead it with the James Madison quote that a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power that knowledge brings.

    We live in the longest-running republican form of government in world history. But that's something that has to be sustained from generation to generation.

    And if each subsequent generation hasn't armed themselves with the power that knowledge brings, a collective knowledge of our shared history and a collective knowledge of our institutions and political processes and how to engage in respectful civic discourse, then we won't be able to sustain into the future the gift that prior generations gave us of a democratic framework to govern our society.

  • John Yang:

    You talked about a collective knowledge of the history of the United States.

    But history and social studies have become very politicized in recent — recent years, in recent days. Do you worry that there — that some states are going to restrict what can be taught in the classroom?

  • Patrick Kelly:

    Well, I think that what the survey data from the NAEP exam shows us is, this is not the moment to be restricting history instruction. We need to be going the opposite direction.

    And I think that what we need to do is, we need to realize that struggling with the hard parts of our history can also help us struggle with the hard moments we face in society right now. By not giving students the opportunity to wrestle with the challenging aspects of our history, we're not giving them a chance to exercise the muscles they need to take on the challenges they will face as the future leadership in our country.

  • John Yang:

    Patrick Kelly, a government teacher at Blythewood High School in Blythewood, South Carolina, thank you very much.

  • Patrick Kelly:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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