(The Hill) — U.S. children’s test scores in social studies, math and reading have all plummeted since the beginning of the pandemic, raising grave concerns about students’ future.
Eighth graders’ scores in U.S. history and civics were both down to where they were back in the 1990s, according to the Nation’s Report Card, released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) on Wednesday. Similar drops in reading and math skills were reported in the fall.
The most obvious culprit for the drop is COVID-19, but experts also point to concerns such as the effect of culture wars in schools and the lack of resources for the subjects.
According to the NAEP results, eighth graders had a 2-point decrease in average civics scores in 2022 compared to 2018. The scores are at the same level as they were in the 1998 assessment, the first year the civics assessment was conducted.
U.S. history average scores for eighth graders fell 5 points in 2022 compared to 2018 and 9 points compared to scores in 2014. The score is comparable to the one in 1994 when NAEP first gave the U.S. history assessment.
John Sipple, director of education graduate studies at Cornell University, said the most significant factor in learning is a student occupying a safe environment and having things such as food security and a quiet space to study, which was obviously disrupted for many during the pandemic.
“We know COVID impacted all these basic fundamental issues that we know impact student learning. So it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about reading or civics or social studies or biology. When you have those set of threats, the set of challenges, learning is going to be reduced,” Sipple said.
But with civics and U.S. history, experts say there is another aspect to consider when evaluating why the scores fell so drastically: the fight in state legislatures over how these subjects should be taught, particularly regarding issues of race.
“We’re now in an era where middle school and high school social studies teachers are encountering a substantially increased amount of interference in their classrooms, from parents, from school boards, potentially from state legislate legislators,” said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association.
“We must think about the impact of these divisive concept laws and the pressure on teachers to not teach about division and conflict. As long as teachers are told that they have to be very careful and very wary when they’re teaching about division and conflict, they will not be able to do a good job,” he added.
However, concrete data that link legislative fights over curricula to learning are limited, and others discount the idea as U.S. history scores have been falling since 2014, and resources in the subjects have been lacking for even longer.
AP U.S. Government and History teacher Patrick Kelly, who is also a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the Nation’s Report Card, points to a lack of quality social studies in high schools as a reason for the drop.
“I think part of the story here is that we’re not giving students sufficient access to consistent and high-quality social studies instruction throughout their K-12. experience. It’s choppy, it’s sporadic,” Kelly said.
From 2018 to 2022, Kelly says, data show the number of students taking a dedicated U.S. history course declined.
The lack of quality social studies stems from decades of fights that have prioritized other subjects and caused a lack of resources for civics and U.S. history, said Donna Phillips, vice president and chief program officer for the Center for Civic Education.
“For example, you have a federal policy that prioritizes measuring growth in literacy and math. Eventually, science got added to that, but social studies was never a federal priority,” Phillips said. “And so, as a result, state agencies and state Departments of Education, you know, social studies was not included in any accountability or performance measures for the local school districts.”
As a result, social studies classes are bigger than other subjects, and fewer of the classes are offered throughout the K-12 education system than other topics, according to Phillips.
The score paints a worrying picture for the future of American students.
“I think it has some really dire potential consequences for us as a society because history and civics is about a lot of things, but at its core, it’s about equipping students for actively engaged citizenship, to be a contributing member of a vibrant democratic society,” Kelly said. “It takes knowledge and skill to be a member of it. Those rights come with responsibilities.”
Last year, the Annenberg Public Policy Center found a quarter of Americans could not name one branch of government. Only 47 percent could name all three branches.
The lack of civic education can also lead to more divisiveness in the country.
“We want reflective patriotism, but you have to understand how your country was founded. So you know how to make change within the system and know the good, the bad and the ugly about our country’s history,” Phillips said. “And so we’re not seeing that because we’re seeing just kind of a wholesale ‘this country is awful,’ or we’re seeing the other end of the spectrum which is like a blind American exceptionalism, and there’s nothing in between.”