Just the Facts: Civics Education

Published April 1, 2003

Although in theory they recognize the importance of civics education for the future of the nation, many Americans in fact lack an understanding of their form of government and the Constitution under which they live. In the 1998 Civics component of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 26 percent of twelfth-graders had an understanding of civics rated “Proficient or Above.”

This lack of proficiency leads to some serious misconceptions, as a recent Columbia Law School survey showed. Although the Founding Fathers wrote the U.S. Constitution to protect individual rights and property, one-third of adult Americans think the document contains the Karl Marx maxim that negates all rights to property: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Only 31 percent of respondents were sure Marx’s words weren’t in the Constitution, while the remaining third didn’t know.

Various efforts are underway to promote civics education in the U.S. The latest kicked off in January, when Siemens Corporation and National History Day (NHD) announced a partnership with several other groups to sponsor a civics initiative for middle and high school students called “Our Documents.” The initiative provides teachers with a free sourcebook of documents from 100 critical moments in U.S. history to support the theme of “Rights and Responsibilities in History.” Further details are available at www.nationalhistoryday.org.

Civics Achievement Levels

Under the auspices of the National Center for Education Statistics, a part of the U.S. Department of Education, the NAEP regularly reports to the public on the educational progress of students in grades 4, 8, and 12. The national assessment of civics knowledge, performed in 1998, has three main components: civic knowledge, intellectual skills, and civic dispositions. Results are reported as scale scores and by achievement level: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. “Proficient” is the level identified by the National Assessment Governing Board as the standard all students should reach.

NAEP 1998 Civics Achievement (SRN 04/03)

Only 23 percent of fourth-graders, 22 percent of eighth-graders, and 26 percent of twelfth-graders scored at Proficient or Advanced. (See Figure 1.) At the other end of the spectrum, almost one-third of all students scored below Basic–31 percent of fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders, and 35 percent of twelfth-graders.

Twelfth Grade Demographic Factors

The variation in civics achievement among twelfth-graders by gender is minor, with 27 percent of males and 26 percent of females scoring at Proficient or Above. (See Figure 2.) However, the variation by type of school attended is larger, with 39 percent of twelfth-graders in Catholic schools achieving at Proficient or Above compared to 25 percent in public schools.

1998 NAEP Civics Test Twelfth Grade (SRN 04/03)

Achievement levels by race/ethnicity show a greater range of variation. Thirty-three percent of White students and 28 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students achieved at Proficient and Above, compared to 11 percent of Hispanic students and 9 percent of both Black and Native American students.

Achievement levels by education level of the parents show the greatest range of variation. Thirty-six percent of twelfth-graders whose parents graduated from college achieve at Proficient or Above, compared to only 14 percent of students whose parents graduated from high school and just 6 percent of students whose parents did not graduate from high school. Even poverty, as measured by eligibility for the Free/Reduced Price Lunch program, did not produce such a dramatic range of student achievement.

For more information …

The “Our Documents Teacher Sourcebook,” created by National History Day, Inc. in cooperation with the National Archives, is available free to educators by emailing [email protected]. Further information about “Our Documents” is available from NHD’s Web site at http://www.nationalhistoryday.org.

The November 1999 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, The NAEP 1998 Civics Report Card for the Nation, NCES 2000-457, by A.D. Lutkus, A.R. Weiss, J.R. Campbell, J. Mazzeo, & S. Lazer, is available from the NAEP Web site at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main1998/2000457.pdf.

The May 2002 Columbia Law School survey is available online at http://www.law.columbia.edu/news/surveys/survey_constitution/press_release.shtml