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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

NAEP Civics — Results Are Bad, But Interesting

Did you all see the results of the NAEP study on what 4th, 8th,and 12th graders know about civics — US History and Law? Here is a summary: Basically 4th graders are doing a bit better on knowing something (they hit “basic” or “proficient”) than when last tested in 2006 and 1998; 8th graders show essentially no change; 12th graders are worse off, but just about where they were in 1998. Within those depressing numbers are some perhaps more useful bits — 4th grade girls are getting better, boys are the same — perhaps that is one reason this cohort is improving a bit; the most positive sign was a general improvement of Hispanic scores across the three grades. But what stood out to me — and was not emphasized in the reporting — was the astonishing, and I mean shoot-yourself-in-the-head, scores for “advanced” levels — especially when you scroll down to read what that means.

Drum roll…….what % of our students know US History and Law at an “advanced” level (in this land of AP glut and test madness)? 2 % of 4th graders; 1 % of 8th graders; and a giant leap to 4% of 12th graders. The questions were, for example, in 4th grade naming two ways countries can deal with shared problems; in 8th grade naming two actions citizens can take to encourage Congress to pass a law; and in 12th grade to compare the citizenship requirements in the US to that of other nations. While these are not trivial and take some age-appropriate thinking, they have something in common — they require the student to go past identify and define to some form of internalized action — that overworked phrase, “critical thinking.” The student must know, or care, enough to take what teachers and textbooks have said and to ponder it, examine it, think about how to put it into use. And there our entire Social Studies system has been the most dismal failure. This despite the fact that the adminstrators reported that 33% of the elementary schools focused on Social Studies by 4th grade; 85% of students said they studied it in 8th grade; and, get this, 97% said they studied civics or govt. in high school.

So 97% coverage yielded a 4% return in excellence — and this at the very end of the educational system that, in one way or another, has been teaching these subjects since 4th grade. So here is where I just don’t get it. As a parent, I am frustrated that our schools do not teach enough world history, do not situate US history in world history, do not encourage research, writing, and thinking. But OK, for all my frustration, you would think at least they would get US History and Civics well enough to launch kids into college with decent preparation. But clearly that is not so. We are neither broad nor narrow — simply ineffectual. And so friends — authors, editors, reviewers, publishers, librarians, parents, teachers — this matters — our complaints about textbooks and trade books, reviewers’ knowledge and bias towards fiction, Myra’s concern that we write books teachers can use — all of this matters. Because otherwise, the huffing and puffing of our school system K-12 will produce 96% of students who demonstrate no ability to think creatively about the laws and principles of our nation. And that is, as Sandra Day O’Conner said after she read the NAEP report, “pathetic.”


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Let me throw something else into this mix. The NYC public schools use something called a “pacing calendar” to show teachers the content they should cover month-by-month. This calendar is so overcrowded with stuff that no one could possibly do it. A few years ago when I was doing staff development, I asked a group of teachers if they followed the pacing calendar. They laughed. So here’s the point: Unless we seriously accept the idea of indepth learning and we have the chance to pursue ideas over time, our students will never develop the kind of advanced thinking measured by the NAEP exam. That means time to read longer books, write and rewrite ideas, talk about these ideas, and think about complex problems rather than simple bits of information. The lack of attention paid to this kind of learning should be alarming to everyone.

  2. I believe our results will only continue to shame us as students progress through our current structures. Time and time again I hear from elementary school teachers that they are forced to use a program for literacy that prevents them from integrating learning in literacy, science, and social studies. Time and time again I hear from elementary school teachers that science and social studies are perhaps afforded a half hour a week or something along those lines. Science gets more time because it’s tested. I think there are many students across this country who aren’t getting any kind of genuine history/social studies until middle school, which is absurd. Horrific. Mortifying. Obvious. And yet, nothing changes.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    Where to begin? One place would be 4th grade and the insanity of teaching state history — which is just an early and distorted way of doing the same US history you will get again the following year. Given the limited time we have in 4th grade — what about stimulating inquiry — as you’ve written about — rather than doing a bad preview of what you will be bored by again the following year.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    I don’t know, I am enough of an optimistic child of the 60s to feel we must be able to make changes, to improve things. Not sure how — but I am convinced we can make things better, we just need to speak out, mobilize, fight.