Most U.S. Middle-School Kids Don't Know How Government Works

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Eighth grade students from Oyster-Adams Bilingual School learn auto mechanics in Washington D.C.

Eighth grade students from Oyster-Adams Bilingual School learn auto mechanics in Washington D.C.

Photographer: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

More than half of U.S. eighth-graders say Americans believe the U.S. government should guarantee them a job when they grow up.

That’s one of the findings of a federal test of children’s knowledge of history, civics and geography. Only 32 percent correctly answered the question about a belief shared by most people in the U.S. The right response: the government should be a democracy. Eleven percent said citizens favored a single political party and 6 percent, an official religion.

The results of the 2014 test, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, were released Wednesday as Congress considers replacing the federal testing law known as No Child Left Behind, which President Barack Obama and others blame for promoting too tight a focus on math and reading at the expense of other subjects.

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, founder of civics education nonprofit, iCivics, said the results are “truly frightening, and demonstrate that we must put the same emphasis on these subjects that we are putting on math and science.”

History, civics and geography, essential for preserving democracy and the U.S. role in world affairs, “may not be getting the attention they need,” said Roger Beckett, executive director of the Ashbrook Center, an Ohio nonprofit organization that provides educational programs for history teachers.

Not Proficient

Only about a quarter of children scored at a level considered proficient, or above, in history, civics and geography on the test, often called the Nation’s Report Card. That was essentially unchanged from 2010, the last time the tests were given. By comparison, one-third of children showed proficiency in math and reading, according to Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees data collection and analysis for the test.

“The world is growing more complex,” Michelle Herczog, president of the National Council for the Social Studies, said in a statement. “Low scores and lack of student growth in these subjects point to a need for immediate action.”

More than 29,000 eighth-graders across the country participated in the history, civics and geography tests. Because of budget cuts, the government didn’t assess fourth- and 12th-graders, as it did in 2010, Carr said.

Analytical Skills

In one civics question, students were asked to interpret a graph showing longer life expectancies in wealthy countries, compared with poorer ones, and explain why. Only 6 percent completed both parts of the question correctly, while 16 percent gave an “acceptable” reply.

Students were also queried about what tools they used in classrooms. Only 64 percent said they read material from a textbook at least once a week, down from 73 percent in 2010. Use of computers in social studies or history classes increased to 25 percent, up from 18 percent four years earlier.

In a bright spot, the lowest-performing children performed better in the three subjects than they did four years ago, narrowing the gap with top students, Carr said. Hispanic students, who made up 26 percent of those taking the test, up from about 8 percent in the 1990s, are also catching up. “The gaps are closing,” she said.

(An earlier version of this story corrected the description of the Ashbrook Center in fifth paragraph.)

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