K-6 / Middle School
Why do Americans perform so poorly on the citizenship test? What can we learn about how students and teachers are prepared to learn about the US Constitution and its most basic structural features? This dashboard looks at the results of major studies in civics for K-6 and Middle School, using civics as a rough indicator of trends in teaching Constitutional-related knowledge - presuming that "civics" is where most students would be exposed to Constitutional history and principles. Our summary shows that while the teaching of American Constitutional history is not necessarily a problem of exposure (i.e., time spent on the American founding), there have been no significant gains in civics teaching, going back at least as far as 1998. Many of the studies point to a different problem, namely, a lack of effective engagement with the material. Results also show very low levels of confidence in Constitutional knowledge and federalism in particular.
How Eighth-Grade Students Performed in Civics
NAEP Report Card: Civics 1998-2018
Approximately 13,400 students in 8th grade participated in the "Nation's Report Card" 2018 civics assessment. The authors compared performance from 2018 to 1998. They found "no significant change in the average civics score...compared to 2014" although some indication that "lower-performing students were making gains."
Why this measure?
Civics Instruction in 8th Grade
NAEP Report Card: Civics
What might explain the lack of progress in civic scores for the last two decades? One possible candidate is a lack of teaching focus. The 2018 NAEP Report Card found that only twenty-two percent of eighth-grade students have teachers with primary responsibility for teaching civics to their class:
To what extent is this a problem? The same study examined whether students who had teachers whose primary responsibility it was to teach civics fared better. The authors find that students who had primary responsibility civics teachers scored higher (average 159) than those who did not have teachers with primary civics responsibility (average 153).
Low Confidence in Constitutional Knowledge
NAEP Report Card: Civics
What other consequences flow from this apparent lack of progress in civics? In the same report, eighth grade students were asked to report on their confidence in "demonstrating civics" or "U.S. government-related knowledge and skills." For example, students were asked whether they believed they could explain the roles and functions of the three branches of government. They were also asked to self report on their confidence in the ability to describe the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizens. The researchers created an index to illustrate confidence. The chart below illustrates the dramatic results: more than 3/4 of eighth graders report low to moderate confidence in basic Constitutional and U.S. government knowledge and skills in 2018:
83% of students report learning about civics in grade 8, while only 39% report learning about civics in grade 6
22% of students have teachers with primary responsibility for teaching civics
77% of students report low to moderate confidence levels
*note: Grade 8 NAEP civics assessment questions were not released to the public. Samples can be found here.
NAEP Grade 8 Civics Questionnaire
What about specific federalism knowledge? Our analysis shows that at least 2 of 6 questions on the Confidence survey were related to structure (separation of powers) and federalism. Students were asked to rate their confidence in answering this question - Compare the roles and responsibilities of local, state, and national government in the United States:
While more research is needed, and while we would benefit from a breakdown of the above confidence survey, we think it is safe to assume that confidence in federalism knowledge is equally low, compared to other forms of civic knowledge
"I Don't Remember"
Perhaps one of the most revealing findings from the NAEP civics survey is the percent of students who simply don't remember whether they received any civics education at all, going back to grade 6. In 2018, NAEP found that 58% of grade eight students either did not take civics or did not remember taking any civics in grade 6:
What can we conclude from students who simply do not remember taking civics? Perhaps it is not surprising that grade 8 students do not remember grade 6 civics - they were all thinking of other things, most likely. At the same time, does this not suggest that there is more to the problem than just teaching facts and having students memorize names and dates? This is the conclusion of the 2019 Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation Project, below.
Doing it Wrong?
the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation 2019 Report
American history education is not all "doom and gloom." In 2019, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation published a report, focusing on one basic problem - why Americans perform so poorly on the citizenship test.
The authors asked four questions:
Are students required to study American history?
Are teachers prepared to teach American history?
Are current curriculum and instruction effective?
Has knowledge of American history declined?
Daniel J. Elazar, Exploring Federealism
Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan
David B. Walker, The Rebirth of Federalism
David Brian Robertson, Federalism and the Making of America