American Students Lack Basic Understanding of Democratic Process, U.S. Government

The National Assessment Governing Board released the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) “Civics Report Card” this week revealing what U.S. students know – and don’t know – about civics.  The study follows the publication in April of A New Civic Mission of Schools report documenting Carnegie Corporation of New York’s decade-long effort to educate students for citizenship and community participation and leadership.

The new NAEP data reveals that only 27 percent of fourth-graders, 22 percent of eighth-graders and 24 percent of twelfth-graders scored proficient or higher in civics – meaning that millions of young Americans are unprepared to become the informed and engaged citizens a healthy democracy requires.

The data on the whole was nearly identical to that of the 1998 and 2006 Civics NAEPs, demonstrating a lack of progress in educating students for democracy for more than a decade. For twelfth graders, slight declines in test scores illustrate that U.S. high schools are not making progress in civic learning.

In A New Civic Mission of Schools, Carnegie Corporation President Vartan Gregorian writes, “It seems our school systems are sending many students on to college with a very limited idea of how our government works and how the basic tenets of our democracy intersect with nearly every facet of our experience. It’s not that young people don’t care about issues ranging from international upheavals to conditions in their local neighborhoods, or other critical problems.”

Gregorian continues, “They do care, and they show us that every day. Students, for instance, are volunteering and participating in community service in record numbers. But we need to help them make the link between their concerns and how politics and government make a difference.”

NAEP, also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” is the only nationally representative, continuing evaluation of the condition of education in the United States and has served as a national yardstick of student achievement since 1969. To achieve the goal of educating students for citizenship, private foundations, led by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, created the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. The Campaign is a coalition of 40 organizations committed to improving the quality and quantity of civic learning in American schools. The Campaign's goal is to increase and improve civic learning in grades K-12 by working for policies that implement the recommendations of the Civic Mission of Schools report published in 2003 by Carnegie Corporation. This includes efforts to bring about changes in national, state, and local education policy.

About the National Assessment of Educational Progress

According to the National Assessment Governing Board, the 2010 NAEP civics assessment was administered by the National Center for Education Statistics to nationally representative samples of public and private school students, which included about 7,100 fourth graders, 9,600 eighth graders, and 9,900 twelfth graders. The results are reported as average scores on a 0 to 300 scale and as percentages of students scoring at or above three achievement levels: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. Basic denotes partial mastery of the knowledge and skills fundamental for proficient work. Proficient represents solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter. Advanced represents superior performance. The scores cannot be compared across grade levels.