The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report on U.S. History and Civics scores was released this week, and the results paint a sobering picture of the state of American education. The report links learning loss directly to school closures during the COVID-19 forced lockdowns.
The NAEP, administered every two years to a representative sample of students in grades 4, 8, and 12, highlights areas of growth and decline across subjects such as reading, mathematics, history and civics, and science. The most recent reading and math scores were released in October 2022.
The report comes amid a growing public outcry against teachers’ unions and in particular American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who fought to keep public schools closed until well after 2020.
Notably, this week the U.S. News and World Report’s latest rankings put Florida, which resisted school closures, at number one in education and higher education for 2023.
Dismal Civics Scores
The NAEP U.S. History test “covers key figures, dates, and events, as well as student familiarity with key historical ideas and movements.” The civics test asks students to demonstrate a basic understanding of the American system of government, as well as an elementary ability to defend political opinions. For the first time in 25 years, student scores on the civics exam declined.
As Frederick Hess reported in Forbes, “Just 13 percent of students were deemed ‘proficient’ in U.S. history and just 22 percent in civics. After peaking in the early 2010s, scores are now back to where they were when the tests were first administered in the 1990s.”
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona issued a statement following the release of the results, blaming the scores on “the pandemic” and cuts to education funding. He also took a shot at states that prohibit Critical Race Theory texts from classrooms: “Banning history books and censoring educators from teaching these important subjects do our students a disservice and will move America in the wrong direction.”
NCES Commissioner Peggy Carr, however, noted that blaming COVID-19 does not reflect the data: “For U.S. history, I would say that I was also very, very concerned, because it’s a decline that started in 2014 long before we even thought about Covid,” she said.
Hess also disagreed with Cardona:
The real issues lie elsewhere. For one thing, too many students simply aren’t studying U.S. history or civics. Just 68 percent of eighth-graders said they’d taken a class focused mainly on U.S. history in grades K-8 and just 49 percent had taken a course focused on civics. To no one’s surprise, students who’d taken these courses fared better on the civics and history exams. Yet, just seven states require civics in middle school and fewer students reported having taken history this time than back in 2018.
“Teachers, practitioners need to get this content in front of students,” noted Carr. “When you look at what they don’t know, and it’s not just about reading, it’s about content, facts, information about our constitutional system. Students don’t know this information.”
Some states have anticipated the need to reinstate rigorous civics and history education in the classroom. Florida’s Civics Literacy Excellence Initiative, set for full implementation in 2023, provides funding to incentivize teachers to pursue a Civics “Seal of Excellence” that qualifies them for a $3,000 stipend.
Reading Achievement Gaps Persist
Unlike history and civics, reading and mathematics scores are less about content and more about cumulative skills. NAEP scores in these areas indicate that COVID-19 did have a major impact on student achievement.
The 2022 results indicate that the average 8th-grade reading score was lower than “all previous assessment years going back to 1998.” Seventy percent of 8th-graders tested “not proficient” in reading.
The report highlights persistent achievement gaps in reading between racial and ethnic groups and students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. While there has been some narrowing of these gaps, the progress has been slow, and NAEP results indicate that COVID policies like school closures exacerbated these disparities.
The NAEP results align with a 2022 Harvard University study, which found “a higher incidence of remote schooling for Black and Hispanic students” and also noted that “High poverty schools spent about 5.5 more weeks in remote instruction during 2020-21 than low and mid poverty schools.”
The same study demonstrated that “the main effects of hybrid and remote instruction are negative, implying that even at low-poverty (high income) schools, students fell behind growth expectations when their schools went remote or hybrid.”
School closures are not a thing of the distant past, noted education reformer Corey DeAngelis last year: “More than 5,500 US public schools closed each of the first two weeks of 2022, according to school information aggregator Burbio.”
“Nearly two years after ‘two weeks to slow the spread,’” DeAngelis wrote for Cato Institute, “many teachers unions are still fighting to close public schools. Factions within New York City’s largest teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, pushed to close schools for in‐person instruction earlier this month. Some union members even filed a lawsuit to close schools for ‘two weeks’ again.”
In mathematics, the 2022 NAEP report – released in October 2022 – showed modest improvement in 8th-grade math performance compared with 1990’s scores. Since 2019, however, 8th-grade mathematics scores have declined across all regions and in all 50 states.
Just 26% of 8th-graders achieved a “proficient” score in math, with the average score being 274 out of 500.
The effect of lockdowns on math proficiency was particularly devastating. According to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, math learning loss was “‘10.1 percentage points smaller for districts fully in‐person’ relative to remote districts in 2020–21.”
As the educational fallout from school closures during the pandemic continues with reports like the 2022 NAEP, demands for accountability and school choice are on the rise.
“The NAEP report just confirms that the state schools are more concerned with indoctrination than education, so of course parents are looking elsewhere… and they want to take their money with them,” said CatholicVote Director of Communications Josh Mercer.