Close Menu

NAEP History and Civics Scores Are a Call to Action on Equitable Civic Learning

CIRCLE's two decades of research on K-12 civic education has shone a light on issues and concerns reflected in decreasing scores.

Last week’s release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2022 Civics & U.S. History Assessments at Grade 8 is an opportunity to reflect on the state of K-12 social studies and civic learning in the United States, and to ensure that all youth have the knowledge and skills needed for meaningful participation in civic life. We believe that the test results point to serious challenges in the quality and equity of K-12 history and civics stemming from neglect, polarization, and a lack of support for educators. 

According to the NAEP data, the average U.S. History score at 8th grade fell by 5 points compared to 2018 and was 9 points lower than in 2014. Post-pandemic NAEP assessments also found drops in math and reading scores. The Civics score at 8th grade decreased by a small but statistically significant 2 points compared to 2018; according to NAEP, it’s the first time the civics score has dropped since the test was first administered in 1998. For both U.S. history (by 6 points) and Civics (by 3 points), the percentage of youth scoring below basic was higher in 2022 than in 2018.

NAEP is Not a Comprehensive Assessment, But Does Illuminate Whether Social Studies is a Priority and the Distribution of High-Quality Practices 

The NAEP scores reflect CIRCLE’s concerns about the state of civics and social studies education in the United States, which have been informed by two decades working with educators in these fields. While the NAEP tests are not perfect or comprehensive assessments of civic learning or the health of democracy, they point to challenges and inequities in students’ foundational civic knowledge that make it harder to build the more complex skills and understanding required to effectively engage in democracy.  

The NAEP tests can help us understand how much our schools and institutions are prioritizing—or deprioritizing—history and civics education. There has been a steady decline in attention and resources for social studies in schools, and the COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated that neglect of critical subjects. 

Moreover, CIRCLE research has consistently found that these opportunities for strong, in-school civic education are unequally distributed by race, urbanicity, and other demographic and socioeconomic factors. These inequities are also reflected in the NAEP tests, with scores lower for Black, Hispanic, and Native American youth, young people in rural areas, and students who qualify for the National School Lunch Program.

Assessment Captures Knowledge When Most Students Have Taken History Courses, Only Some Have Had Civics 

These 8th grade tests serve as snapshots that reflect the knowledge that students have (or have not) acquired and retained up to that point. In the case of civics, it may reflect the fact that, according to the NAEP data, during grade 8 when the test is administered, only about half of students said they were taking a class focused mainly on civics. Less than a third said they had a teacher whose primary responsibility was teaching civics. 

In this context, the decrease in U.S. History scores is even more concerning. By 8th grade, students have taken at least one full course on American history and related topics, so the declining test results may point to issues that affecting social studies teaching and learning long before 8th grade. Among these problems, the polarization of U.S. politics may be contributing to attempts to regulate or limit the teaching of history, as well as discussions of current issues and experiential civic education that is backed by strong evidence in educational research. 

NAEP Findings Reinforce Need to Support Educators

These challenges affect teachers, who often feel unsure or unsupported in providing inclusive and effective history and civics instruction. The effect on students, who may lack basic information that they can build on in future grades, can do lasting damage to their education and to an American democracy that requires robust preparation for democratic engagement. 

The NAEP history and civics scores are one part of what should be a broader conversation about equitable K-12 civic learning for all, and how to ensure that civic education is inclusive and relevant for all youth in diverse communities. We will continue contributing through that conversation by promoting our CIRCLE Growing Voters framework, leading implementation of the Educating for American Democracy roadmap, and working with education leaders across the country on the implementation of civics policies that give all youth the tools they need to become voters and leaders in their communities.