Many high school seniors may be old enough to vote, but just one-quarter of them demonstrate at least a "proficient" level of civics knowledge and skills, based on the latest results from a prominent national exam.
That statistic, 24 percent, represents a slight dip from the proportion of 12th-graders scoring proficient or "advanced" in the subject four years earlier. (This was also reported by Answer Sheet blogger Valerie Strauss Wednesday.)
Meanwhile, the average fourth grade score rose in the latest administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared with both 2006 and 1998, the first time "the nation's report card" in civics was given. Twenty-seven percent were proficient or better in 2010, compared with 24 percent in 2006, according to the NAEP data issued Wednesday.
No significant change was seen for eighth graders, who have remained stuck at the 22 percent proficient-or-higher mark since 1998.
"Knowledge of our system of government is not handed down through the gene pool," retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in a statement. "The habits of citizenship must be learned. ... But we have neglected civic education for the past several decades, and the results are predictably dismal," said Justice O'Connor, who has been promoting civics instruction in the United States.
One area of growth highlighted in the new report is the improvement over time for Hispanic students. At all three grade levels, the Hispanic test-takers had higher scores than in 1998, and scores have climbed for eighth graders since 2006, as well. In 1998, 44 percent of Hispanic eighth graders scored at "basic" or above, compared with 50 percent in 2006 and 56 percent in 2010.
In fact, the achievement gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites was narrower than in both 2006 and 1998, though it was still sizable, at 23 points on the NAEP scale, which runs from zero to 300.
"We are encouraged by the gains in civics achievement being made by our nation's Hispanic students, who are an increasingly important voice in our democracy," David P. Driscoll, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, said in a press release.
That said, even with the progress for Hispanic students, only 11 percent of eighth graders scored at the proficient level or above.
Further, relatively few students of all races and ethnicities reached the highest level which represents what the report calls "superior performance."
Only four percent of all 12th graders, for example, scored advanced, "a level we would hope our future leaders would attain," Charles N. Quigley, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Civic Education, said in a statement.
Five percent of white seniors scored at the advanced level, compared with 2 percent of Hispanics and 1 percent of African-Americans.
The NAEP test in civics contains a blend of multiple-choice and constructed-response questions at each grade level. The questions tackle three interrelated components: civic knowledge, intellectual and participatory skills, and civic dispositions. The focus on civic knowledge tests, among other topics, students' understanding of civic life, politics, and government; the foundations of the American political system; and the role of citizens in American democracy.
Quigley said he was especially alarmed to see so many seniors performing poorly on the national exam.
"Many of our high school seniors are already eligible to vote, or they very soon will be," said Mr. Quigley, whose organization is based in Woodland Hills, Calif. "We would expect them to be better prepared to exercise the rights and assume the responsibilities of American citizenship."
It appears that the overall 3-point drop in civics achievement among seniors was largely the result of a decline among girls. The average scale score for girls dropped from 152 to 148, which was statistically significant. For boys, it declined from 150 to 148, but that change was not deemed statistically significant.
On the flip side, 4th grade girls scored higher in 2010 than four years earlier, posting an average score that was 7 points higher than the performance of 4th grade boys. Put another way, 30 percent of girls scored as at least proficient in 2010, compared with 24 percent of that population in 2006. Meanwhile, for 4th grade boys, the proportion scoring proficient or higher remained unchanged between 2006 and 2010, at 24 percent.
As part of the NAEP report, both teachers and students were surveyed to learn more about the extent to which civics instruction is delivered in schools. That instruction, however, didn't necessarily benefit the students, the data suggest.
At the 8th grade, 85 percent of students reported learning about civics in school, but there was no significant difference in the average scores of those who did or did not report receiving such instruction.
There also was no measurable change in the particular topics 8th graders reported studying. For example, 82 percent said they covered the U.S. Constitution, 78 percent Congress, and just 40 percent other countries' governments.
Nearly all 12th graders, 97 percent, reported studying civics or government during their high school years.
When asked more specifically about particular topics they had studied during the current school year, fewer said they had been taught about the Constitution than previously. Sixty-seven percent reported studying the document in 2010, compared with 72 percent in 2006. That, however, was the only content area out of nine specific civics topics students were asked about in which the difference between 2010 and 2006 was statistically significant.
The survey data for seniors also show that:
-68 percent said they had studied political parties, elections, and voting;
-66 percent studied Congress;
-61 percent studied how laws were made; and
-59 percent studied the president and Cabinet.
By far, studying other nations' governments (47 percent) and international organizations such as the United Nations (43 percent) were the two content areas that the smallest proportion of seniors said they studied.
Mr. Quigley said he was deeply troubled that so many seniors are apparently not spending time on those content areas.
"Ignoring those topics," he said, "is difficult to defend in an era in which our country is ever more deeply involved in the world — politically, economically, militarily, and in humanitarian efforts."