Tag Archives: NAEP

Civics Education Isn’t About Content or Activism — It’s Both.

Today is Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, observed each year to commemorate the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787 and “recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens,” according to the Library of Congress. It makes for a good occasion to reflect on the state of civics education in America, a topic that has received renewed focus since the 2016 presidential election.

One question that is often debated in this conversation is whether civics education should focus on teaching content and critical thinking skills, or encouraging civic engagement and activism. This presents a false choice, as schools should be responsible for ensuring that students are both adequately informed and sufficiently engaged — not one or the other.

One side of this debate contends that civics education should first and foremost provide students with a basic understanding of how the American political system works and teach them how to think about political issues. Under this approach, students should develop a well-informed understanding of all sides of an issue, including the underlying facts and proposed solutions, only venturing into political activism once they have mastered the necessary knowledge and skills.

This approach is well intended: it is important to cultivate a citizenry capable of robust debate that honestly grapples with the benefits and tradeoffs associated with each issue. And improvement is certainly needed, based on students’ poor performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics assessment, which measures “the civics knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are critical to the responsibilities of citizenship in America’s constitutional democracy.” According to the most recent civics assessment, last administered in 2014, only 23 percent of eighth grade students scored at or above the proficient level. In 2010, when NAEP last tested high school seniors in civics, only 24 percent scored at or above the proficient level.

However, neither of these results has changed significantly since 1998, and it’s not as if older voters — who vote at much higher rates than younger voters — are necessarily bastions of civic knowledge. For example, according to the most recent results from the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual civics survey, released last week, fewer than one third of Americans can correctly name all three branches of government, and many also lack important knowledge about how each branch functions.

Source: Annenberg Public Policy Center

Additionally, civic engagement, particularly voting, is not just about making a well-reasoned choice between two or more options. It’s also a way of demonstrating political power. When young people aren’t engaged, they are leaving their figurative voice out of the political conversation, meaning the issues they care about may receive less attention, and policies that affect young people may be enacted without their input. Our education system should have a strong interest in empowering young people and starting them on a path of self-advocacy.

Source: United States Elections Project

While the goal of civics education should be to both adequately inform students and get them engaged in the political process, it’s clear that we aren’t doing a good enough job on either front. This isn’t surprising when you consider how little time is spent on civics education. Based on a recent analysis from the Center for American Progress, 40 states require coursework in U.S. government or civics. While nine states require one year of such coursework, 31 only require a half-year, and 10 states have no requirement at all.

If we want to ensure that the next generation of citizens is sufficiently prepared for civic life, we need to commit the necessary time and resources — certainly more than one semester. We should view this Constitution Day and Citizenship Day as an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the civic mission of schools.

NAEP Results Again Show That Biennial National Tests Aren’t Worth It

Once again, new results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that administering national math and reading assessments every two years is too frequent to be useful.

The 2017 NAEP scores in math and reading were largely unchanged from 2015, when those subjects were last tested. While there was a small gain in eighth-grade reading in 2017 — a one-point increase on NAEP’s 500-point scale — it was not significantly different than eighth graders’ performance in 2013.

Many acknowledged that NAEP gains have plateaued in recent years after large improvements in earlier decades, and some have even described 2007-2017 as the “lost decade of educational progress.” But this sluggishness also shows that administering NAEP’s math and reading tests (referred to as the “main NAEP”) every two years is not necessary, as it is too little time to meaningfully change trend lines or evaluate the impact of new policies.

Such frequent testing also has other costs: In recent years, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), the body that sets policy for NAEP, has reduced the frequency of the Long-Term Trends (LTT) assessment and limited testing in other important subjects like civics and history in order to cut costs. NAGB cited NAEP budget cuts as the reason for reducing the frequency of other assessments. However, though NAEP’s budget recovered and even increased in the years following, NAGB did not undo the previously scheduled reductions. (The LTT assessment is particularly valuable, as it tracks student achievement dating back to the early 1970s and provides another measure of academic achievement in addition to the main NAEP test.)

Instead, the additional funding was used to support other NAGB priorities, namely the shift to digital assessments. Even still, the release of the 2017 data was delayed by six months due to comparability concerns, and some education leaders are disputing the results because their students are not familiar enough with using tablets.

That is not to say that digital assessments don’t have benefits. For example, the new NAEP results include time lapse visualizations of students’ progress on certain types of questions. In future iterations of the test, these types of metadata could provide useful information about how various groups of students differ in their test-taking activity.

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However, these innovative approaches should not come at the expense of other assessments that are useful in the present. Given the concerns some have with the digital transition, this is especially true of the LTT assessment. Instead, NAGB should consider administering the main NAEP test less frequently — perhaps only every four years — and use the additional capacity to support other assessment types and subjects.

Donald Trump’s Election is a “Sputnik Moment” for Civics Education

Last week, the American Enterprise Institute hosted an event discussing the failings of civics education in America. The panelists referred to the dismal state of civics literacy as a “Sputnik moment” – a reference to when the Soviet Union successfully launched the world’s first satellite in 1957, stirring the United States to create the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and dramatically increase its space exploration efforts.

Nothing illustrates this comparison better than the election of Donald Trump. As Trump has demonstrated time and time again, he knows little about governing or policy – instead relying on divisive rhetoric and petulant Twitter tantrums. His most recent gaffe: at a White House convening of the nation’s governors, Trump said that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” As it turns out, many people knew.

However, if Trump can name all three branches of government, that alone would put him ahead of nearly three quarters of Americans. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 26 percent of respondents could name all three branches, and 31 percent could not name a single one.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) also show poor results. In 2014 – the most recent NAEP civics assessment – only 23 percent of eighth grade students scored at or above the proficient level. The same is true of older students getting ready to vote. In 2010, when NAEP last tested high school seniors, only 24 percent scored at or above the proficient level. Neither of these results has changed significantly since 1998.

At the same time, faith in many of America’s institutions are at historic lows – even before Trump’s election. And it’s likely that his constant attacks on various institutions will only serve to worsen these numbers. This crisis of confidence only feeds into the growing level of polarization, making it nearly impossible to govern effectively. It’s no wonder that recent congresses have been arguably some of the least productive ever.

Confidence in Institutions

Despite these difficulties, the American people seem well aware of the problem at hand. According to the 2016 PDK poll of the public’s attitudes toward the public schools, 82 percent of Americans believe preparing students to be good citizens is very or extremely important. At the same time, only 33 percent think the public schools in their communities are doing that job very or extremely well.

So what is to be done? Continue reading

What Good Are Higher Graduation Rates If Students Aren’t Learning More?

On Thursday, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released the results of its 2015 science assessment for America’s 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students. Only 22 percent of 12th graders scored at or above the proficient level, compared to 38 percent of 4th graders and 34 percent of 8th graders. And while 4th and 8th graders both saw a small but significant improvement from 2009, high school seniors stagnated — earning the same average score as the 2009 sample.

This was also true across all subgroups. Among students of colors, students with disabilities, English language learners (ELLs), rural students, and female students, not a single group saw a statistically significant score change from 2009.2015 NAEP Science Assessment Scores

We saw a similar trend in April, when NAEP released the 12th grade results of its 2015 reading and math assessments. Seniors’ average reading score did not significantly change — again across every single subgroup. The average 12th grade math score declined.

And yet, earlier this month, data released by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) showed that America’s high school graduation rate has reached a record high of 83 percent, continuing a five year trend. In stark contrast with this year’s NAEP data, rates among students of color, students with disabilities, ELLs, and low-income students have all improved.

While this is certainly good news, it begs the question: What good are higher graduation rates if students aren’t learning more?

According to ED Secretary John King: “Students who have a high school diploma do better in the 21st Century economy than students who don’t. So having a higher graduation rate is meaningful progress.” While high school graduates do earn more than non-graduates, this answer is still deeply unsatisfying.

States will have the opportunity to seriously address America’s stagnant high schools in the coming years. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law last December, provides greater flexibility for states in almost every facet of federal K-12 education policy. The law makes it easier for states to spend Title I money on high school students. It also gives states much greater leeway for using school improvement funds, including an optional set-aside for programs like Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and career and technical education. It remains to be seen exactly how states will implement the law, but luckily we’ll have NAEP along the way to give us a national snapshot of student learning.

We’re doing a better job of shepherding students to high school completion — now we just need to make sure they actually learn something.

Over the Long Term, NAEP Scores Are Way, Way Up

In anticipation of new NAEP scores coming out this week, I thought it would be useful to spend some time reflecting beforehand on what we know on a macro scale. So rather than focus on year-year-changes or commit other sins of misNAEPery, I’m using data from the NAEP Long-Term Trend data series, which goes back to 1971 for reading and 1973 for math. Here are the scale score gains, on a 500-point scale, over the last four decades (* signifies statistically significant):

4th grade math

  • All students: +25*
  • White students: +27*
  • Black students: +36*
  • Hispanic students: +32*

8th grade math

  • All students: +19*
  • White students: +19*
  • Black students: +36*
  • Hispanic students: +32*

12th grade math

  • All students: +2
  • White students: +4*
  • Black students: +18*
  • Hispanic students: +17*

4th grade reading

  • All students: +13*
  • White students: +15*
  • Black students: +36*
  • Hispanic students: +25*

8th grade reading

  • All students: +8*
  • White students: +9*
  • Black students: +24*
  • Hispanic students: +17*

12th grade reading

  • All students: +2
  • White students: +4*
  • Black students: +30*
  • Hispanic students: +21*

There are at least four important things the data are telling us:

1. Although NAEP scores barely budge year-to-year, over the long term, NAEP scores are way, way up. Remember that no matter what happens this week.

2. Math scores are rising faster than reading scores. There’s nothing new to say here, except to note that this is a large-scale reminder that math scores are easier to improve than reading scores.

3. There are clear age trends emerging in the data. Fourth-graders have made greater gains than eighth-graders, and eighth-graders have made larger gains than twelfth-graders. In fact, we see statistically significant gains in both subjects and in all races, except the composite scores in 12th grade.

4. Changing demographics are masking how much NAEP scores have improved. Although all races are rising individually, scores are rising faster for black and Hispanic students than they are for white students or for the overall composite. As I wrote earlier this year, “Because NAEP takes a representative sample, it’s also vulnerable to something called Simpson’s Paradox, a mathematical paradox in which the composition of a group can create a misleading overall trend. As the United States population has become more diverse, a representative sample picks up more and more minority students, who tend to score lower overall than white students. That tends to make our overall scores appear flat, even as all of the groups that make up the overall score improve markedly.” Here are the percentage of NAEP 4th-grade test-takers who were white over the various testing years:

  • 1971: 84
  • 1975: 80
  • 1980: 79
  • 1984: 75
  • 1988: 75
  • 1990: 74
  • 1992: 74
  • 1994: 76
  • 1996: 71
  • 1999: 69
  • 2004: 59
  • 2008: 56
  • 2012: 53

These demographic trends are nearly identical at every age level, and they’re wreaking havoc on our ability to neatly understand our national results. As is clear in the data above, in both math and reading and at every age level tested, all races are improving at least as fast as the nation as a whole. Achievement gaps are closing as black and Hispanic students have made even faster progress.

Similar trends are playing out in other subjects like geography, history, and civics.

I note all this in anticipation that this week’s NAEP results aren’t likely to show much change from the last NAEP results in 2013. Scores may appear “flat,” but we should think of the entire American education system as like a glacier; it may be moving at an almost imperceptibly slow pace, but it is moving.