Obama Administration Indefinitely Postpones National Civics, History Tests

Published January 8, 2014

The National Assessment of Educational Progress exams in civics, U.S. history, and geography have been indefinitely postponed for fourth and twelfth graders. The Obama administration says this is due to a $6.8 million sequestration budget cut. The three exams will be replaced by a single, new test: Technology and Engineering Literacy.

“Without these tests, advocates for a richer civic education will not have any kind of test to use as leverage to get more civic education in the classrooms,” said John Hale, associate director at the Center for Civic Education.

NAEP is a set of national tests of fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders that track achievement on various subjects over time. Researchers collect data for state-to-state comparisons in mathematics, reading, science, and writing. The other NAEP subject tests only provide national statistics and are administered to fewer students. The tests provide basic information about students but do not automatically trigger consequences for teachers, students, and schools.

Students have historically performed extremely poorly on these three tests. In 2010, the last time the history test was administered, students performed worse on it than on any other NAEP test. Less than half the eighth-graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights, and only 1 in 10 could pick a definition of the system of checks and balance.

Science vs. Humanities
Since most civic education is taught to first-semester high school seniors, Hale said, not testing in twelfth grade creates a major information gap.

“Is it possible to have a responsible citizenry if we don’t teach them civics, history, and the humanities?” said Gary Nash, a professor of history education at the University of California-Los Angeles. Postponing the exams, typically administered every four years, does not mean classroom education in the humanities will be cut. But the cuts indirectly say we can do without civics and U.S. history, Nash said.

Trading the humanities tests for technology tests is necessary to measure “the competitiveness of U.S. students in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-focused world,” said David Driscoll, chair of the NAEP Governing Board, in a statement. “The [Technology and Engineering Literacy] assessment, along with the existing NAEP science and mathematics assessments, will help the nation know if we are making progress in the areas of STEM education.” 

Nash agrees the nation needs more engineers and scientists, “but what are they without humanities under their belt?” he said.

Providing an ‘Intellectual Framework’
A summer 2013 report from the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences explained the need for these subjects this way: “The humanities and social sciences provide an intellectual framework and context for understanding and thriving in a changing world. When we study these subjects, we learn not only what but how and why.”

Nash pointed out Franklin High School in the Los Angeles Unified School district is 94 percent Latino, and many families are immigrants. Without changing anything in science and math, the school began to emphasize humanities. The scores in science and math improved, testing almost on par with students in Beverly Hills. “It’s about increasing their passion for learning,” he said. Giving students a context for learning helps them learn more, he said.

Masters of Our Government
Students must be prepared “to think for themselves as independent citizens,” said Hale. “Civics and government is as generative as math; we are not born as great democratic citizens. We aren’t born knowing why everyone should have the right to political speech even if it is intolerant speech.”

Consider the events of recent months, he said: the Supreme Court rulings on marriage and the Voting Rights Act, the National Security Administration’s data collection, and Congress debating immigration and student loan rates.

“Our leaders make decisions every day based on interpretations of the proper role of government. We have no way of knowing if these [decisions] are good or bad,” Hale continued. “We are supposed to be masters of our government, not servants of it.”

Cutting the civics tests indicates the government’s priorities, and priorities affect curriculum, Nash noted. He suggested it’s dangerous for a country that must govern itself if children do not learn about that process.

Image by Tim Evanson.