Can our fourth-graders name two rights of U.S. citizens? Can our eighth-graders make sense of a graph on voting patterns? And can our high school seniors relate the “melting pot” to U.S. history?
New 2010 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress paints a mixed picture of school achievement in civics. The good news: Among fourth-graders, scores climbed overall. Since 1998, achievement gaps between blacks and whites, and between Hispanics and whites narrowed slightly.
Much of the nation’s debate about education reform has focused on accountability and standards, with an emphasis on improving student competency in math and reading. Critics fault this emphasis for squeezing out studies in other subjects such as civics. Yet without reading, kids don’t have a chance at mastering content. At the same time, exposure to a rich array of subject matter, including civics, strengthens students’ reading comprehension and vocabulary skills. That interplay could very well explain the civics gains seen among fourth-graders.
Problems linger, though, as fourth-graders of color and those from low-income families were far more likely to score “below basic” and far less likely to score “proficient” or “advanced” than their white and higher income peers.
On a positive note, scores for Hispanic eighth-graders rose, even as eighth-grade results remained flat overall. Apart from some increases among Hispanics, however, scores for twelfth-graders dipped since 2006, a troubling sign since many of high school seniors are eligible to vote.
If young people don’t grasp how a democracy works, they will have difficulty playing a part in it. Despite the progress made in teaching civics, the nation’s schools still fall disturbingly short in preparing our children for the role of citizens, especially in communities that have been historically marginalized.