Well, considering the state of social studies education in the 21st century, is this really any surprise to anyone?
In 2014, twenty-three percent of eighth-graders performed at or above the Proficient level in civics. Students performing at or above this level on NAEP assessments demonstrate solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter. The percentage of students performing at this level was not significantly different from the percentage in either 1998 or 2010. The percentage of students at or above the Basic level (74%) was higher than in 1998.
For many of these students, middle school is the first exposure they have to civics -oriented concepts and ideas, in many cases, we cannot even agree on what those concepts should be. It really should be no surprise that some of our students struggle. Let’s remember, too, that for the NAEP, the ‘Basic’ level requires students to demonstrate at least SOME partial mastery of the comment, and the report notes that 74% of tested students were at the Basic level. This IS a positive, because it means, in my view, that we ARE starting to see a change in civic knowledge and proficiency. You have to see positives, and you have to start somewhere, and we can hope that perhaps this might spur some real action on civic education; action that involves more than requiring kids to take a multiple choice test where they can simply memorize answers and doesn’t really require much in the way of civic understanding or even in depth knowledge.
The contextual breakdown within the NAEP report is, to me, fascinating.
Comparing students’ responses in 2014 to responses to questions about classroom practices in 2010 shows some changes. Higher percentages of students in 2014 than in 2010 reported watching movies or videos and using a computer at school at least weekly. The percentages were lower in 2014 than in 2010 for students who reported reading from a textbook, discussing current events, and taking part in role-playing, mock trials, or dramas at least weekly.
It is great news that students are using the textbook less. We all know of the problems that textbooks pose to quality instruction (though they CAN play an important role!), but the fact that pedagogy that actually engages students while reinforcing instruction is really unfortunate. Active learning is such an important element of the social studies, and even with traditional assessments always looming, it deserves to remain a part of our field.
The chart below also stands out to me, because I think it says a great deal about how civics should be taught. If we engage our students, our students will learn. If they can feel connected to the material, and understand why Civics matters, they will learn!
So how does this compare to civic education in Florida? Do we have data we can look at? Happily, yes. Now, it should be noted that unfortunately the NAEP does not have state level data for the Civics assessment, but Florida’s middle school Civics EOCA covers the same material that is on the NAEP test. For those of you outside the state of Florida, or in Florida but not aware, this state is one of the few with an actual requirement for civics to be taught, and assessed, in middle school. This is a result of the Sandra Day O’Connor Act, which mandated both the course and an assessment (you can view the standards, benchmarks, and assessment items through our website. simply click the benchmark to see more). So, how do our Florida kids stack up?
The first official administration of the test was given last spring, and 61% of middle school students that took the assessment scored a 3 or higher (on a 1-5 scale), which makes them ‘proficient’. This compares positively to the 23% that scored at proficient on the NAEP. 15% of Florida students scored a 5 on the test, while only 2% scored comparatively on the NAEP. Of course, the caveat is that the two tests are NOT 100% equivalent in scoring, structure, or specific content, but they are close enough that I would not hesitate to say that Florida kids do have a grasp of citizenship and the roles of citizens that perhaps exceeds their peers in other states. We still have a GREAT deal of work to do, particularly with minority students and special needs kids, but we have begun!
This was the first administration of the Florida civics test. With funding from the Legislature, the Lou Frey Institute and the Bob Graham Center, through the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship, are working with schools that are struggling with civics. We expect to see Florida’s students understanding of civics continue to improve in the coming year.