Downright Uncivil!

The new NAEP scores are here!  The new NAEP scores are here!  This morning, the National Assessment Governing Board released the Civics 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 4, 8, and 12.  While trying to put a good spin on the data (civics knowledge for fourth graders is creeping up), the overall results were disappointing.  For the age group that such an assessment is most important — 12th graders — scores have slipped since 2006.

When it comes to civics knowledge, only 27 percent of 4th graders scored proficient or better.  For eighth graders, only 22 percent scored proficient or better.  And just 24 percent of 12th graders hit that magic proficient level.  So less than a quarter of all students surveyed are able to demonstrate a proficient knowledge of civics, at least as the NAEP measures it.
What does that mean?  According to the information provided by the U.S. Department of Education, a proficient fourth grader is able to identify a purpose of the U.S. Constitution.  An eighth grader should recognize a role performed by the Supreme Court.  And those 12th graders should be able to define the term “melting pot” and argue if it applies to the United States.  To put it in further perspective, an advanced eighth grader should name two actions citizens can take to encourage Congress to pass a law, while an advanced 12th grader should be able to compare the citizenship requirements of the U.S. to other countries.
Clearly, we are not getting enough Schoolhouse Rock into our K-12 institutions.  Or maybe ED needs to rotate out Conjunction Junction from its hold music and start playing some of the civics segments from the legendary series.
Seriously though, the new NAEP scores offer up a few lessons that our policymakers and practitioners must consider:
* Is it adequate to measure civics education just once every four years, particularly when most states don’t have civics or social studies state assessments? 
* If it is adequate, then do we consider civics a priority?  At the end of the day, does it matter if a junior high student knows how a bill becomes a law?
* As the Common Core State Standards Initiative comes on line in the states, will its strict emphasis on English/language arts and math further marginalize civics education in the United States?
* Will we treat social studies as a core academic subject (as we do English, math and, usually, science) under the new ESEA?
No one questions the importance of English or math in getting our students college and career ready.  But at the end of the day, civics education helps make students “life ready.”  Without a “proficient” knowledge of history and government and related social sciences, how do we expect today’s students to participate in tomorrow’s representative democracy?  How do we boost voter participation rates, particularly of knowledgeable voters?  How do we develop a more participatory citizenry?
Then again, sometimes a trend line is just a trend line.  It’s not like we need to ride between Lexington and Concord (Massachusetts, of course) shouting about NAEP scores, do we?

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