U.S. study finds students lagging in civics knowledge

As history professor Matt Warshauer brought his sixth-grade daughter to Hartford this week to see an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, he lamented that students often know little about their government.

A national study released today suggests that Warshauer is right.

A U.S. government study on civics education reported only modest gains by fourth-graders, little change in eighth-grade scores and a decline in performance among high school seniors since the last study in 2006.


West Hartford 6th-grader Sarah Thaxton (c) and classmates study a copy of the Declaration of Independence: ‘It started freedom’

The study, known as the Nation’s Report Card, found gaps in knowledge about documents such as the Constitution and Declaration of Independence and about fundamental functions of American government. In addition, more than half the fourth-grade teachers surveyed for the study said they spent only a small amount of time or no time at all teaching the foundations of democracy or the roles of citizens in a democracy.

“Civics and history and social studies are getting demolished in the schools,” Warshauer, who teaches at Central Connecticut State University, said at the Old State House, where one of 25 known original copies of the Declaration of Independence was on display.

Warshauer brought his daughter, Emma, and some of her classmates from King Philip Middle School in West Hartford to see the historic document.

“It started freedom,” 11-year-old Sarah Thaxton, a King Philip sixth-grader. “I get to tell people I’ve seen it in person.”

According to today’s report, only about half the nation’s fourth-graders correctly answered a multiple choice question asking them to identify the main idea in the Declaration of Independence.

The framework for the test is based largely on a set of voluntary national standards published in 1994 by the Center for Civic Education and was developed by scholars, educators, civic leaders and others.

The test was given to about 26,600 fourth-, eighth- and 12th-grade students, a cross-section of the nation’s school population, in 2010. It consisted of multiple-choice and open-ended questions requiring written answers. Aside from requiring knowledge of fundamental functions of government, the exam tests what students know about “the workings of civil society–the voluntary associations and non-governmental institutions through which a free people express their civic concerns,” according to the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the test.

Here are some of the findings:

  • The decline in scores among high school seniors occurred mainly among girls. About one in four seniors, or 24 percent, scored at or above the proficient level, a standard representing “solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter,” test officials said. For example, a student scoring at that level typically could define the term “melting pot” and explain how it applied to the United States, officials said.
  • Among fourth-graders, 27 percent scored at or above the proficient level while 77 percent met or exceeded the basic level, described as “partial mastery” of fundamental civics knowledge and skills. Fourth-graders at the proficient level generally could answer questions such as identifying a purpose of the Constitution or a way to express an opinion on a public policy issue.
  • Fewer than one in five eighth-graders, or 22 percent, met the proficiency standard in 2010, the same mark as in 2006. Students at that level typically could identify a role played by the Supreme Court or give examples of the effects of the women’s rights movement.
  • Substantial performance gaps remain for black and Hispanic students, whose scores remain well below those of white students. In eighth grade, for example, black students trailed whites by 25 points on a 300-point scale while Hispanics had a 23 point gap. However, Hispanic eighth- and 12th-grade students have narrowed the gap somewhat since 2006. At grade four, the white-Hispanic gap remained about the same.

That national test results  “confirm an alarming and continuing trend that civics in America is in decline,” Charles N. Quigley, executive director of the national Center for Civic Education, said in a statement released with today’s report.

During the past decade or so, educational policy and practice appear to have focused more and more on developing the worker at the expense of developing the citizen, he said.

David P. Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, pointed to the gains by Hispanic students as a bright spot but added, “Clearly we need to reverse the trend for our 12th graders, particularly the drop in scores for 12th-grade girls – so they, too, understand important concepts that contribute to a full civic life.”

Some educators believe that subjects such as history and civics have been pushed aside in favor reading, mathematics and science–subjects that have been emphasized on tests required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“Because of testing, there’s less emphasis on social studies at the early grades,” said Stephen Armstrong, a social studies supervisor in West Hartford’s public school system and vice president of the National Council for the Social Studies.

“In many districts in Connecticut, we’re getting kids coming into sixth grade who, in some cases, have had precious little social studies,” he said.

High school students in Connecticut are required to take at least one-half credit in civics or American government under a law that took effect in 2004.

Among the sponsors of that law was Denise Merrill, a former state representative and now secretary of the state.

“I’m really not sure how much is being taught now,” said Merrill. “Perhaps it needs to be at younger ages.”

Merrill was among several dignitaries, including Gov. Dannel Malloy, who took part in a reading of the Declaration of Independence at the Old State House, where the document was part of a traveling exhibit sponsored by the Norman Lear Family Foundation.

“I think [civics] is less emphasized because it’s not on the tests,” Merrill said. “In our zeal for [teaching] reading, perhaps we’ve forgotten that content matters.”