Why are American students failing history? Civics and history scores among the nation's eighth graders plummeted during the most recent round of federal testing, Politico reports, raising "a broader concern about pandemic-era learning loss." Many observers are worried about what the findings mean for American democracy. "Whether students know U.S. history and civics is a national concern," said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.
How bad is the problem? "Just 13 percent of eighth graders were considered proficient" in history, The New York Times reports — down from 18 percent a decade ago. There was a smaller drop in civics knowledge: 22 percent of test-takers were considered proficient, down from 24 percent in 2018.
So what's going on? Axios suggests "a mix of politics and COVID" is at fault. The pandemic part was expected — students are also testing lower in math and science following the massive disruption to schooling in 2020. But battles over "critical race theory" and what topics are allowed to be taught in public schools may also be playing a role, some experts say. The high-profile political fights are "affecting our kids in learning these topics and learning it in a healthy way," says Kerry Sautner, chief learning officer at the National Constitution Center.
What are commentators saying?
"The truth is you get out of something what you put into it, and we've sidelined social studies instruction in this country for far too long," teacher Patrick Kelly writes for USA Today. In recent decades testing requirements have placed an "ever-increasing focus on reading and math," squeezing out time for instruction on history and American government. Students will get better in these subjects "only if we will give them the time and the opportunity." And it's important to do so: In a democratic society, citizens need "a firm understanding of our nation's history and civic institutions."
The test results mean "more than three-quarters of students don't have the intellectual tools to understand the functions of government, legislatures and the judiciary," editorializes the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Without a grounding in the basics, kids who spend their time on "smartphones and social media" become more vulnerable to the types of disinformation that have characterized the nation's recent election cycles. "The mass manipulation of today's adults is bad enough, so imagine the possibilities when the next, horrendously ill-prepared generation comes of voting age."
"We didn't become the greatest country in the world by accident," Haley Barbour and Beverly Perdue, past and current chairs of the National Assessment Governing Board, write for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Schools once took the social studies curriculum seriously. Fixing the problem means a return to "rigorously teaching the story of our founding and the principles on which our democracy is built." That might be difficult — these are "divided times" and that probably has "some influence on these low scores." But it's important to try to bridge that divide, for the sake of young people and their future: "Students' lack of knowledge will certainly impact the opportunities available to them and their success in the world."
The debate now will hinge on whether major policy revisions are needed in American education. "I don't think so," Neil McCluskey writes for the libertarian Cato Institute. The situation probably isn't as "dire as it might seem" because "standardized test scores are poor predictors of outcomes we'd like to see from education." And eighth graders might not yet see the relevance of history and civics to their lives. It's "important to be calm, and not let panic drive policy."
That's probably the minority view. The scores should be an "action-forcer," Chester E. Finn Jr. writes for Education Next. While history and civics are usually understood to be part of the "core curriculum," the truth is that "little time is devoted to history and civics over thirteen years of schooling." While "legislative action can already be glimpsed in many places," the new test results should serve as "the alarm we need to catalyze purposeful action."
There will have to be a "range of solutions," literacy expert Susan Pimentel writes for Education Week. One of them includes "carving out more time" for history and civics as soon as elementary school. But building reading skills is also important: Less than a third of eighth graders are proficient at that skill. It will be harder for students to learn about history if they can't read about it: "It all fits." The time to act is now. The eighth graders who did poorly on the history and civics tests are already in high school. That means "they will soon enter college and the workforce with extremely limited knowledge about American democracy."