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2010 Civics Report Card

Fourth-Graders Post Gains in Civics Knowledge and Skills Since 1998 While Twelfth-Graders
Lose Ground From 2006

Nation's Report Card Shows Hispanic Students Improving

(Washington, D.C.) — Achievement by U.S. fourth-graders in civics has increased while twelfth-graders' performance has declined, according to the Civics 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 4, 8, and 12—known as The Nation's Report Card.

The 2010 report showed that fourth-graders posted the highest civics score since 1998, with the percentages of students at or above the Basic and Proficient achievement levels higher than in 2006 and 1998. However, high school seniors scored lower in 2010 than in 2006, and had a lower percentage at or above Proficient compared to 2006. There was no significant change in the overall score for eighth-graders compared to 2006 and 1998.

Twelfth-grade girls scored lower in 2010 compared to the civics assessments in 2006 and 1998. Hispanic students made gains with average scores increasing from 1998 to 2010 in all grades.

The NAEP civics assessment measures the knowledge and skills critical to the responsibilities of citizenship in America's constitutional democracy. Comparing the results from the 2010 civics assessment to results from 1998 and 2006 shows how students' knowledge and skills have progressed over time.

"We are encouraged by the gains in civics achievement being made by our nation's Hispanic students, who are an increasingly important voice in our democracy," said David P. Driscoll, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. "But clearly we need to reverse the trend for our twelfth-graders—particularly the drop in scores for twelfthgrade girls—so they too understand important concepts that contribute to a full civic life."

The 2010 NAEP civics assessment was administered by the National Center for Education Statistics to nationally representative samples of public and private school students, which included about 7,100 fourth-graders, 9,600 eighth-graders, and 9,900 twelfth-graders. The results are reported as average scores on a 0 to 300 scale and as percentages of students scoring at or above three achievement levels: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. Basic denotes partial mastery of the knowledge and skills fundamental for proficient work. Proficient represents solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter. Advanced represents superior performance. The scores cannot be compared across grade levels.

The civics assessment contained a mixture of multiple-choice and constructed-response questions for each grade level. The assessment questions addressed three interrelated components: civic knowledge, intellectual and participatory skills, and civic dispositions. The civic knowledge questions assessed students' understanding of civic life, politics, and government; the foundations of the American political system; how the constitutional government employs principles of democracy; the relationship of the U.S. to other nations; and the role of citizens in American democracy.

At grade 4, students who scored at or above the Basic level (77 percent) were likely to identify a method used to select public office holders, students scoring at Proficient (27 percent) could identify a purpose of the U.S. Constitution, and students at Advanced (2 percent) could explain two ways a country could deal with a shared problem.

At grade 8, the 72 percent of students who performed at or above the Basic level were likely to identify a right protected by the First Amendment, the 22 percent who performed at or above the Proficient level could recognize a role performed by the Supreme Court, and the 1 percent who scored at the Advanced level could name two actions that citizens could take to encourage Congress to pass a law.

At grade 12, the 64 percent of students who performed at or above the Basic level were likely to interpret a political cartoon, the 24 percent scoring at or above Proficient could define "melting pot" and argue whether or not the phrase applied to the U.S., and the 4 percent scoring at Advanced could compare U.S. citizenship requirements to those of other countries.

Some detailed findings:

  • Twelfth-Grade Score Declines. The average score of twelfth-graders in 2010 declined 3 points from 2006 and was not significantly different from 1998. The percentage of students at or above Proficient in 2010 was lower than in 2006 but not significantly different from 1998.
  • Scores for Female Students Increase at Grade 4 and Decrease at Grade 12. The average civics score for twelfth-grade girls decreased by 3 points from 2006 to 2010, while average scores for twelfth-grade boys did not change significantly from previous years. However, the average score for fourth-grade girls increased by 5 points over 2006, while scores for fourthgrade boys did not significantly change over the same period. There was no significant change in the average scores of eighth-grade girls and boys.
  • Scores Increase for Hispanic Students and Gap Closes. Average civics scores for Hispanic students were higher than in 1998 for all three grades and higher in 2010 than in 2006 at grade 8. The average score for Hispanic eighth-graders in 2010 was 5 points higher than in 2006 and 10 points higher than in 1998. Although the gap between the scores of White and Hispanic eighth-graders was 23 points in 2010, it was narrower than the gaps in 2006 and 1998. In twelfth grade, the 19-point gap between the scores of White and Hispanic students in 2010 was smaller than the gaps in 2006 and 1998. At grade 4, the White-Hispanic gap of 27 points narrowed compared to 1998, but had no significant change compared to 2006.
  • White-Black Achievement Gaps Persist. White fourth-graders, for instance, scored 24 points higher on average than Black fourth-graders in 2010. The gap at this grade level narrowed compared to 1998, but was not statistically different compared to 2006. On average, White eighth-graders scored 25 points higher than Black students in 2010, with no significant changes in gaps compared to 2006 and 1998. In the twelfth grade, the 29-point gap between White and Black students was not statistically different from the gaps in 2006 or 1998.

The Nation's Report Card: Civics 2010, Grades 4, 8, and 12 is available at Additional information is available at


Tonya Miles 

National Assessment Governing Board

The NAEP Civics Report Card issued this morning has mixed results. There is a strong upward trend at grade 4, particularly at the Basic achievement level and among lower-scoring students. That is encouraging news, and it is part of a pattern in other NAEP assessments. These also show significant gains over the past decade in mathematics and reading in our elementary schools. As measured by NAEP, elementary education in the United States is making clear progress, and civics is part of that upward trend.

In eighth grade, however, student achievement in civics has been flat since the current NAEP Civics assessment was first given in 1998. And at grade 12, the news is even more discouraging. Civics achievement has slipped since 2006 from levels that already were disappointing. Unfortunately, these results too are part of a broader picture-stagnation or mixed results in other NAEP subjects at both eighth and 12th grades.

The gains in civics achievement at fourth grade have been substantial, and they have been made over a decade in which student enrollment has become substantially more diverse. All racial/ethnic groups have made gains since 1998, and, overall, 77 percent of fourth-graders now reach the Basic achievement level in civics and 27 percent reach Proficient. Those at the Basic level show "some understanding of what government is and what it does" and how national holidays and symbols, such as the flag and the Statue of Liberty, reflect American values. At the Proficient level students should have "a good understanding of what the American government does and of the reasons why it is not allowed to act in certain ways."

At 12th grade, of course, the expectations on the NAEP Civics assessment are more demanding, as they certainly ought to be. Unfortunately, a smaller proportion of students can meet them. Sixty-four percent scored at or above the Basic achievement level, and just 24 percent reached Proficient even though almost 40 percent of 12th graders were already 18 years old and eligible to vote when the NAEP Civics assessment was given in the winter of 2010.

The results were equally disappointing for male and female students, and over the past few years, the average score for female students at 12th grade has dropped slightly so it now is just as mediocre as that of males.

The gap between White and Hispanic 12th graders has narrowed-a positive change-as the average score for Hispanics has risen significantly since 1998 while the performance of Whites has stayed about the same. Unfortunately, the performance of Black students has stalled as well, and the achievement gap between Whites and Blacks has remained unacceptably large. In terms of achievement levels, 30 percent of White 12th graders have reached the Proficient level in civics and 29 percent of Asian/ Pacific Islanders. But for other racial/ethnic groups, the proportion reaching 12th grade Proficient is much less-16 percent of American Indians, 13 percent of Hispanics, and just 8 percent of Blacks.

Does it matter what students know about the U.S. Constitution and about the rule of law, about how the American government is organized and how it functions? These are some of the topics in the NAEP Civics assessment, and they do matter-not only because our 12th graders are voters or soon will be, but also because as citizens in a democracy they will all share in the responsibility for deciding how well our government functions and how well our society deals with the problems we confront.

Many of the issues are complex, and involve trade-offs and conflicts. To reach the Proficient level on the 12th grade Civics assessment students should have a good understanding of our constitutional system and how it evolved. But they also should be able to identify issues where values and principles are in conflict-between majority rule and minority rights, between liberty and equality. They should be able to take positions on these issues, and to defend them with evidence and logic. It is here that many students fall short, and, unfortunately, many adults too.

One major theme of the NAEP Civics assessment is that students should understand the importance of citizen participation at the local, state and national levels and should be able to explain how citizens can work to influence public policy and make sure it works well. I believe in this deeply, and have tried to do my part, as a Girl Scout leader and a local PTA president, as a member of the Maryland State Board of Education several years ago and now as a member of this Governing Board. I have approached all these positions from the viewpoint of my most important role, that of a parent.

Recently, I accepted the chairmanship of a new Ad Hoc Committee of the Board on Parent Engagement. Over the next year it plans to develop recommendations on the steps the Board and the NAEP program can take-by itself or by supporting the efforts of others-to make NAEP data more readily available to parents and to increase parent awareness about the need to raise student achievement and to reduce achievement gaps. The NAEP Civics Report Card is another illustration of that need in an area which bears directly on the health of our democracy.

There have been gains in our elementary schools. We should applaud them, and hope these fourth-graders are part of a pipeline of students destined to become engaged citizens in our democracy. But, as it stands now, too many of the 12thgraders in American schools fall short of the civics knowledge and understandings they need for full participation as citizens and voters. The NAEP Civics Report Card is a wake-up call that much more must be done to prepare them.

We are a diverse and unified American society. Our citizens are free to work individually and collectively to shape public policy. But, as our fourth President, James Madison, put it so well:

"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

Thank you very much.

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National Assessment of Educational Progress

NAEP 2010 Civics

Honorable Sandra Day O'Connor 

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice

The 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics scores are being released today, and the data reveal that civic knowledge among many of our nation's students continues to decline. More than three-quarters of high school seniors - our nation's newest voters - and nearly 80 percent of eighth-graders scored below the Proficient level.

These students will inherit our democracy, and we must empower them to preserve it. Knowledge of our system of government is not handed down through the gene pool. The habits of citizenship must be learned, and our public schools were founded to educate students for democratic participation. The problem is that we have neglected civic education for the past several decades, and the results are predictably dismal.

The 2010 NAEP scores reveal that less than half of our eighth-grade students know the purpose of the Bill of Rights and a majority of those students cannot identify a single activity that is part of civic life. The performance of high school seniors has declined since the last NAEP assessment in 2006, and middle school civics scores have remained at the same low level since 1998.

I believe that we are at a critical point in our nation's history. We face difficult challenges at home and abroad. Meanwhile divisive rhetoric and a culture of sound bites threaten to drown out rational dialogue and debate. We cannot afford to continue to neglect the preparation of future generations for active and informed citizenship.

High quality civic education can ensure that our democracy has a vibrant and robust future. It gives students skills in critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and a common understanding of our institutions and our history. It is also the best antidote for cynicism to help people understand that they are a part of something larger than themselves and that they can make a difference.

In some fields, great progress has been made to provide engaging and effective learning experiences for students. Civics lags behind. It receives less and less emphasis in our schools, and where it is taught, students often describe it as dry and boring.

Last year, I founded the iCivics program (at to engage students through online games and interactive resources. On this free website, students can step into the roles of government actors and can find ways to participate in real-world civic action. For teachers, we provide lesson plans and curriculum units that are aligned to standards in every state and in the District of Columbia.

Today's NAEP results confirm that we have a crisis on our hands when it comes to civic education, and that action must be taken. I believe that we can revive civic education through innovative programs like iCivics, which makes civics relevant to students' lives. To do this action must be taken to reinstate civics as a robust part of the curriculum.

We must give our nation's students the citizenship education that they deserve. Only then will we see a positive change in the NAEP results. More importantly, only then can we rest assured that "We the People" will persevere in our self-governance.

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National Assessment of Educational Progress

NAEP 2010 Civics

Jack Buckley 

National Center for Education Statistics

Today, I am releasing the results of the NAEP 2010 Civics assessment. This is the first NAEP civics assessment since 2006. The civics assessment measures students' knowledge of the American constitutional system and of the workings of our civil society. It also requires them to demonstrate a range of intellectual skills—identifying and describing important information, explaining and analyzing it, and evaluating information and defending positions with appropriate evidence and careful reasoning.

The assessment was administered in early 2010. We have national results for grades 4, 8, and 12, but no state or urban district results. Our sample consisted of approximately 7,100 fourth-graders, 9,600 8th graders and 9,900 12th graders.

Overall results are based on the performance of both public and private school students. At grades 4 and 12, participation rate standards for separate reporting of private school students were not met, so we only have private school results at grade 8 for 2010.

In our reports, student performance is presented in two ways—as average scale scores, with separate 0-300 scales for each grade, and as percents of students at various achievement levels for each grade. The NAEP achievement levels—Basic, Proficient, and Advanced—are set by the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. NAEP scale scores tell us what students know and can do, while the NAEP achievement levels provide standards for what students should know and be able to do.

For both scale scores and achievement level performance, we will be making comparisons to previous assessments in 1998 and 2006. When making these comparisons, we must remember that all NAEP results are based on samples. This means that there is a margin of error associated with every score and percentage. When discussing differences or changes in student performance—either increases or decreases—we only discuss those that are statistically significant, that is, those that are larger than the margin of error. In the tables and figures that are in the report, asterisks are used to indicate statistically significant differences, comparing scores in 1998 and 2006 to 2010.

At each grade, students were asked questions in five areas of civic knowledge; the emphasis on the individual content areas varied from grade to grade. The five areas are civic life, politics, and government; foundations of the American political system; the U.S. Constitution and the principles of American democracy; the United States and world affairs; and the roles of citizens in American Democracy.

In addition to civic knowledge, the assessment also measured a broad range of students' intellectual skills, which are inseparable from knowledge. Again, the degree of emphasis varied from grade to grade. The intellectual skills featured in the assessment include identifying and describing; explaining and analyzing; and evaluating, taking, and defending a position. Each question on the assessment measured both civic knowledge and intellectual skills.

Participatory skills and civic dispositions are also important parts of civic education. These skills and dispositions were measured by a portion of the questions on the assessment. Participatory skills include interacting, monitoring politics and government, and influencing their processes. Civic dispositions include a variety of activities relating to an individual becoming an independent member of a democratic society and functioning as an active participant in that society.

To introduce the results, I will begin with 4th grade. The average score at grade 4 was 157 in 2010, which was higher than in either 1998 or 2006.

To get a more detailed picture of student performance, we will look at scores by percentile—those for lower-performing students at the 10th and 25th percentiles, those in the middle at the 50th percentile, and those for the higher-performing students at the 75th and 90th percentiles.

At grade 4, scores in 2010 were higher than in 1998 for all of these groups except those at the 90th percentile. In addition, the increases at the 10th and 25th percentiles were larger than the increase at the 75th percentile, suggesting that the increase in the overall score is in part due to an increase among the lower-performing students.

When we compare 2010 with 2006, we see an increase for students at the 25th percentile only.

The achievement level results for grade 4 students include the percentages of fourth-graders below Basic, at Basic, at Proficient, and at Advanced. In 2010, the percentage of fourth-graders at Basic was 50 percent, higher than the 46 percent shown for 1998. The percentage at Proficient, in 2010, 25 percent, was also higher than in 1998 (21 percent). The percentage of students who were below Basic in 2010—23 percent—was lower than in either previous assessment year.

Students at the Proficient and Advanced levels were likely to be able to answer questions that, for example, asked them to:

  • identify the purpose of the U.S. Constitution;
  • identify a way to express an opinion on a public policy issue; and
  • evaluate the concept of democracy as presented in an article.

When we examine achievement level results separately for White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander students, we observe increases from 1998 to 2010 in the percentage at Proficient for all four groups (results for American Indian/Alaska Native students are available in 2006 and 2010 only). For example, the percentage at Proficient for White students increased from 27 percent in 1998 to 35 percent in 2010. Comparing 2006 to 2010, there were no statistically significant changes at any of the achievement levels for the five racial/ethnic groups.

Some performance gaps narrowed between 1998 and 2010. The score gap separating White and Hispanic students narrowed from 35 points in 1998 to 27 points in 2010. Although scores improved for White students since 1998, the 17-point increase for Hispanic students was larger.

We see similar results when looking at the gap between White and Black students—a 28point gap in 1998 narrowed to a 24-point gap in 2010, due to a 13-point increase for Black students.

Next, we compare average scores for male and female fourth-graders. In both 1998 and 2006, the 2-point difference in scores was not statistically significant. However, from 2006 to 2010, scores for female students increased 5 points while scores for males did not increase. The 7-point score gap in 2010 was statistically significant, and is the first gender score gap at grade 4 seen in civics in the past three assessments.

When we assess students on NAEP, we also ask questions of their teachers. In 2010 we asked the teachers of the fourth-grade students participating in NAEP about the coverage they gave to various civics topics: politics and government, foundations of U.S. democracy, the U.S. Constitution, world affairs, and roles of citizens in U.S. democracy. We asked if they covered a specific topic to a small, moderate, or large extent, or if they gave no coverage at all. For this discussion, we've combined these results into two categories—students whose teachers said they didn't cover a specific topic at all, or who said they covered it at least to a small extent.

At least 70 percent of 4th-graders had teachers who said they covered the five civic knowledge content areas. When we examine the average scores for these students, we see that, for four of the five content areas, students whose teachers said they covered the topic at least to small extent had a higher average score for the entire assessment than students whose teachers said they didn't cover the topic at all. The one exception was for the topic of world affairs in which the average scores were the same.

As an example of the type of questions 4th-graders were asked, students were given a paraphrase of the introduction of the Declaration of Independence to read, which included the statement "to protect these rights, governments are created that get their powers from the consent of the governed."

Fifty-two percent of students were able to recognize that this idea was summarized by the answer choice that states, "people in the United States should have some control over the government."

Next we'll look at results for eighth-grade students.

At grade 8, the score of 151 for the 2010 assessment showed no significant difference when compared to either earlier assessment. This is true when we look at student performance by percentile as well—no changes were seen at any level.

When looking at achievement level results for grade 8 students, we observe that the percentage of students scoring in the Basic range increased from 48 percent in 1998 to 50 percent in 2010. This was the only statistically significant change in achievement level percentages for grade 8 for the past three assessments.

Twenty-two percent of 8th-graders scored at Proficient or Advanced in 2010. These students would be likely to be able to answer correctly questions that asked them to:

  • identify an action the U.S. can do to influence other countries in a foreign policy issue;
  • analyze the message in a political cartoon; and
  • recognize a role performed by the Supreme Court.

At 8th grade, the White-Hispanic gap narrowed to 23 points, smaller than it had been in either 1998 or 2006. The narrowing of this gap, as in 4th grade, was spurred by the score increase for Hispanic students of 6 points from the 2006 assessment while scores for White students did not change significantly from either of the previous assessments.

The White-Black score gap in 2010 was 25 points. Scores for both White and Black students did not change significantly in comparison to either of the prior assessments, and neither did the gap between them.

NAEP reports results according to student eligibility for the National School Lunch program. We produce results for three groups, ranked according to family income level: those students eligible for free lunches, those eligible for reduced price lunches, and those whose family income is too high to make them eligible for this program. Because of changes in the availability of data, we only report comparisons back to 2006.

The results show that scores varied according to student family income level, with lower-income students having lower scores. All three groups showed an increase in scores from 2006 to 2010, even though there was no statistically significant increase in the overall grade 8 score.

We also asked students about the kinds of topics they studied in civics, listing nine different topics. For any given topic, the percentage who said they studied the topic was at least 33 percent in 2010, and in most cases the percentage was 62 percent or higher.

When we compare the percentages of students who reported studying the nine topics in 1998 and 2010, we see increases for three topics—President and cabinet; the court system; and political parties, elections, and voting. For the other six topics, there were no significant changes.

The only significant change from 2006 to 2010, was an increase in the percentage of students who reported studying international organizations.

As an example of a question to measure how students could interpret political discourse, students were asked to interpret the main message of a political cartoon. The cartoon, reprinted in the full report, shows a van labeled "Small Business" that has wrecked itself while struggling to navigate through a forest of confusing signs symbolizing federal regulation. Given four alternatives, 52 percent of students were able to select "there should be less federal regulation of small business" as the main message of the cartoon.

Now we'll look at the performance of grade 12 students.

The average score for grade 12 students in 2010 was 148, lower than in 2006, but not significantly different from 1998.

When we look at scores by percentiles, we see no significant change for students at the 10th, 25th, 50th and 90th percentiles. At the 75th percentile, however, scores were lower in 2010 than in either 2006 or 1998.

Examining achievement level results, the percentage at Proficient declined from 22 to 20 percent from 2006 to 2010. This was the only statistically significant change in achievement level results across the three assessment years.

Twenty-four percent of grade 12 students scored at or above Proficient in 2010 (20 percent at Proficient and 4 percent at Advanced). These students were likely to be able to answer questions that asked them to:

  • identify a power granted to Congress by the Constitution;
  • identify the effect of U.S. foreign policy on other nations; and
  • identify a potential problem with the War Powers Act.

The White-Hispanic score gap narrowed at grade 12, as it did at both 4th and 8th grades. This narrowing was again a result of an increase in average scores for Hispanic students since 1998 which resulted in cutting the gap between the two groups of students from 25 points in 1998 to 19 points in 2010.

The scores for White and Black students over the three assessments have not changed significantly since 1998, and neither have the gaps.

In 2010, as in 1998 and 2006, we did not observe a gender gap. In 1998, female students had an average score of 152, higher than the score for male students. In 2010, the score for female students had fallen to 148, lower than in either previous assessment and not significantly different from the score for male students.

To get a better idea of what America's students are learning about civics, we asked students which civics topics they studied during the school year. In 2010, most grade 12 students reported they studied civics topics related to political systems in the United States, but in no case did all students say they studied a particular topic. The percentages of students who said they studied the governments of other countries or international organizations were 47 and 43 percent, respectively. These are the two topics with the lowest reported percentages studied by both 8th and 12th graders in 2010.

When we compare results for previous years, we see similar percentages for the most part. The percentage who said they studied the President and cabinet fell from 63 percent in 1998 to 59 percent in 2010, and the percentage who said they studied the U.S. Constitution fell from 72 percent in 2006 to 67 percent in 2010. Otherwise, there were no significant changes.

At grade 12, we asked a constructed response question, requiring a written explanation, in which students were asked to read a quotation from Israel Zangwill's play The Melting Pot, describing how immigrants from all countries would blend into a single culture in the United States.

They were first asked to define the meaning given to the term "the Melting Pot" in Zangwill's play and then were asked "Do you think that the term "melting pot" is appropriate to describe the United States?"

Students' responses were rated as complete, partial, or unacceptable. Thirty-five percent of twelfth-graders received a "Complete" rating on this question, meaning that they answered both parts fully, showing a full understanding of terms relating to immigration and assimilation. An example of a student's complete response to the first part is

"America was often referred to as the "melting pot." The meaning is that many different cultures live here, and will meld together in harmony."

An example of a student's complete response to the second part is:

"I do not believe 'melting pot' is an appropriate term. Though there are many cultures and beliefs here now, we have not all blended together to become one. We are still diverse and different."

To summarize, here are the results for the three grades.

  • At grade 4, the average score of 157 for 2010 was higher than in either 1998 or 2006.
  • At grade 8, the score of 151 for 2010 showed no significant difference when compared to either earlier assessment.
  • At grade 12, the score of 148 was lower in 2010 than in 2006 and not significantly different from 1998.
  • Scores were higher in 2010 than in 1998 for White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander students at grade 4.
  • There were no significant differences for any of the five racial/ethnic groups between 2006 and 2010.
  • At grade 8, there were increases for Hispanic students only, comparing 2010 results with those for both 1998 and 2006.
  • At grade 12, only Hispanic students showed an increase, and only in comparison to 1998.

For American Indian/Alaska Native students, the sample in 1998 was too small to provide reliable results, so comparisons to that year are unavailable.

There is much more information in the 2010 Civics Report Card. In addition, the initial release website ( offers extensive information on the performance of students, access to released assessment questions through NAEP's Questions Center (, and the NAEP Data Explorer, our online data-analysis tool (

Finally, I would like to thank all the students and schools who participated in these assessments. Your time and effort to help make this assessment a success is greatly appreciated.

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National Assessment of Educational Progress

NAEP 2010 Civics

Charles N. Quigley 

Executive Director
Center for Civic Education

The NAEP results today confirm an alarming and continuing trend that civics in America is in decline. These developments indicate that civic education is facing a real "civics recession" calling upon all of us to develop a national call to action. During the past decade or so, educational policy and practice appear to have focused more and more upon developing the "worker" at the expense of developing the "citizen."

Particularly disturbing are NAEP results which show that only about three-quarters of our students at the fourth and eighth grades scored at the Basic or above levels of achievement, while less than two-thirds of our 12th graders did. Many of our high school seniors are already eligible to vote—or they very soon will be. We would expect them to be better prepared to exercise the rights and assume the responsibilities of American citizenship. Also disappointing is the finding that 4 percent of high school seniors ranked at the Advanced level—a level we would hope our future leaders would attain.

Because of time constraints, I will limit myself to commenting on just two aspects of the results of the 2010 NAEP that are of special concern: The persisting gap in racial/ethnic civic knowledge and the essential topics of study addressed and neglected in grades 4, 8, and 12.

Racial and Ethnic Knowledge Gaps Persist

The 2010 NAEP results indicate that there has been no change for the better in the score gaps between White and minority fourth-graders since 2006. In 2010, White fourth-graders scored 24 points higher on average than Black students and 27 points higher than Hispanic students. Those discouraging numbers are only part of the story. While just 13 percent of White fourth-graders scored below the Basic level of achievement, 38 percent of Black students did and almost half (42 percent) of Hispanic students did.

Such disparity is unacceptable—and such disparity should not and need not be perpetuated in our schools. Current studies, however, reveal that civic learning opportunities now are inequitably distributed. One large study of ninth-grade students found that African-American students, Hispanic students, and those not planning to go to college received fewer of either content-centered or experience-centered civic learning opportunities than did White or college-bound students.

The irony is that an abundance of studies provide evidence not only that civic learning opportunities can work for all demographic groups and, what is more important, that they can have long-lasting and far-reaching effects.

A recent review of the influence of civic education found that:

  • Formal civic education imparts an understanding of the government and how it works that aids people in developing a sense of competence that encourages participation.
  • Political engagement requires people to believe in their own ability to influence actual political happenings. A sense of political efficacy does not come only from political knowledge but from other skills that are developed through successful civic education programs.
  • People whose civic education experience includes innovative curriculum elements are more likely to develop habits of participation and a sense of civic duty that remain over a lifetime.

A team of international university scholars who conducted their own inquiry into the importance of civic education concluded and reinforced what other researchers have found:

"Classroom opportunities with an explicitly civic dimension can develop students' sense of civic [competence], social relatedness, and political and moral understandings." 

Topics Addressed and Neglected in the Nation's Classrooms

It is important to remind ourselves that the questions asked in NAEP assessments are neither trivial nor esoteric. They are carefully constructed to address three interrelated components of civic education: knowledge, intellectual and participatory skills, and civic dispositions. Civic dispositions are described as those public and private traits of character that contribute to the political efficacy of the individual, the healthy functioning of the political system, a sense of human dignity and worth, and the common good. Taken together, these components form the essential elements of civic education in the United States.

The 2010 NAEP results provide us some insight into how some of the essential components of civic education are being addressed in our nation's classrooms. For example, in 2010 NAEP, fourth-grade teachers were asked to report the extent to which they emphasized these topics in their classroom: The foundations of democracy, and the roles of citizens in United States democracy.

Sadly, only slightly more than half of the responding fourth-grade teachers reported that they did not emphasize "at all" or "only to a small extent" either the foundations of democracy or the roles of citizens in United States democracy (56 percent and 55 percent respectively). That is lamentable for a number of reasons, including the reason that it ignores the finding of both national and international research.

Studies of elementary school children show that rudimentary concepts of fairness, freedom, justice, and democracy exist among them. From grade two to grade eight their attitudes change from more personalized attitudes about government to more awareness of issues. By late elementary grades students exhibit a growing ability to take the perspectives of others and to consider community issues.

One of the major findings of the Citizenship and Education in Twenty-Eight Countries study was that 14-year-old students have an understanding of fundamental democratic values, but "depth of understanding is a problem." Their knowledge of democratic values and institutions is superficial. 

Turning now to some NAEP findings from middle school, eighth-grade students were asked what topics they had learned about during the school year. While 82 percent of the eighth-graders said they had studied the United States Constitution, only about three-fourths said they had studied the court system, or state and local government (78 percent and 75 percent respectively). Surprisingly, only 62 percent reported that they had studied the President and the cabinet. Forty percent learned about other countries' governments. There was a very small gain in the number who learned about international organizations, such as the United Nations, but it only amounted to a rise from 29 percent of students in 2006 to 33 percent in 2010.

At 12th grade, students reported a surprising decline in study of the United States Constitution—both a decline from study in 2006 and different from the greater attention given to the Constitution as reported by eighth-graders.

Even the study of elections and voting by seniors was sparse. That is surprising, because in many surveys youth have expressed a desire for more instruction in that area. They say that one of the reasons they don't vote or participate in campaigns is that they don't know enough.

One of the more disturbing findings about the knowledge of high school seniors is that less than half (47 percent) had studied other countries' governments and a mere 43 percent had studied international organizations. Ignoring those topics is difficult to defend in an era in which our country is ever-more deeply involved in the world—politically, economically, militarily, and in humanitarian efforts. The 2010 NAEP results make it clear that we need to be more attentive to the topics that are addressed in our classrooms and that they are addressed in such a way that all students acquire the knowledge, develop the skills, and display the dispositions that will enable them to function effectively as democratic citizens.


We are all familiar with the anecdote about the woman who asked Benjamin Franklin as he left the Constitutional Convention what kind of government he and the other framers had created. He replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." I think that there is little question that over the past 200 and some odd years we have not only kept the Republic, but in many ways we have improved it. Think of the rights those of us in this room would have had about 150 years ago: more than half of us would not have had the right to vote, or run for public office, or serve on juries; none of us would be protected from unfair and unreasonable actions of state and local government under the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Our Republic has continued to exist and there is little evidence that we are going to lose it anytime in the foreseeable future. However, this should not allow us to be complacent and neglect the obligation we have to ensure that the next generation is not only capable of preserving the Republic, but of improving it. Each generation must work to preserve the fundamental values and principles of its heritage; to work diligently to narrow the gap between the ideals of this nation and the reality of the daily lives of its people; and to more fully realize the potential of our constitutional, democratic republic. We can emerge from this civic recession, but to do so will require a full-scale national investment from every level of government and every sector of society to ensure that our citizens understand their government and participate fully in it.

[i] Kahne, J.; Crow, D.; Lee, NJ. "Pedagogies can promote politics: High school learning opportunities and political engagement." A paper presented July 1, 2010 in a seminar of the Center for Adolescents at Stanford University. [ii] Owen, D. "The Influence of Civic Education on Electoral Engagement and Voting." A paper presented at APSA's Teaching and Learning Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico, February 11-13, 2011. [iii] Przeworski, A. Sustainable Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). 37. [iv] See Torney-Purta, J. and Vermeer, S. Developing Citizenship Competencies from Kindergarten Through Grade 12: A Background Paper for Policymakers and Educators. Denver: The Education Commission of the States, 2004. 11 and 23. [v] Torney-Purta J., Lehmann, R., Oswald, H., and Schulz. W. Citizenship and Education in Twenty Eight Countries: Civic Knowledge and Engagement at Age Fourteen. (Executive Summary): Amsterdam, the Netherlands: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) 2001. 5. The United States was one of the countries included in this study.

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National Assessment of Educational Progress

NAEP 2010 Civics

Heather Smith 

Rock the Vote

Rock the Vote President Heather Smith issued the following statement regarding troubling statistics about the decline in civics education in high schools that were recently released in the National Assessment of Educational Progress Civics 2010 Report Card. In 2010, about 30 percent of twelfth-graders were not taught about elections and voting, and the average score for the nation's twelfth-graders fell slightly since the test was last administered in 2006.

"We want to see thriving civics education programs in our high schools, and this research shows that with continued budget cuts to civics education at the state and federal levels, many of our nation's young people are not learning about what it means and how to participate as a voting citizen in our democracy. This is not only a disservice to those young people, but also to our country.

Almost 13,000 young people turn 18 every day, and by 2012, the Millennial generation will make up 24 percent of the voting age population, based on U.S. Census data. There is no systematic way to ensure they are learning about the elections process and getting registered to vote, and, as a result, the most common reason they don't participate is that they don't know enough. We must start these conversations in our civics programs at all levels of schooling and prepare our nation's youth to be informed and active citizens. Research continues to prove that civic education and early participation in elections creates a habit of ongoing engagement.

To help support continued civic learning in our nation's school systems, Rock the Vote launched Democracy Class - a one-class-period civic education lesson taught using music, pop culture and video that works to engage young people in a way that's relevant to their lives. Along with our partners, volunteers and educators nationwide, we are teaching Democracy Class in more than 1,000 classrooms in all 50 states to encourage young people to exercise their right to vote when they turn 18. The program's curriculum is available to educators for free and can be taught at any school or community center.

We hope our work with Democracy Class will help to reinforce the efforts of countless civic education professionals who want our students to have a voice in their country."

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About Rock the Vote
Rock the Vote's mission is to engage and build political power for young people in our country. Using music, popular culture, new technologies and grassroots organizing for more than 20 years, Rock the Vote has registered more than 5 million young people, including a record-shattering 2.5 million registration downloads in the historic 2008 election. In 2010, Rock the Vote logged more than 300,000 voter registration downloads as part of the largest midterm election outreach strategy in our organization's history. As the tidal wave of Millennial generation voters continues to establish its power at the polls, Rock the Vote will register millions more young people and make their voices heard. In 2011, Rock the Vote will lead the charge toward making our electoral process more accesible to young people through our high school civics program, Democracy Class, by rallying young people to stop unfair registration laws, and educating prospective 2012 candidates on how to incorporate young people in their campaigns.

About Democracy Class
Rock the Vote's Democracy Class program is designed to educate and excite high school students about voting, elections and governance. This non-partisan lesson plan uses music, pop culture, video, classroom discussion and a mock election to teach young people the skills to navigate the elections process and engage as active citizens. In 2011, which marks the 40th anniversary of the 26th Amendment that gave 18-year-olds the right to vote, Rock the Vote is working with national and local partners to announce Democracy Day asking educators and organizations to bring Democracy Class to students. For more information visit or

Stephaan Harris