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8th-graders' history and civics scores drop on a national test


The so-called Nation's Report Card is out for civics and U.S. history, and it's not great. History scores for eighth-graders are the lowest since this particular testing started in 1994. The new data also shows the first ever drop in civics. This is from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is run by the U.S. Department of Education.

Jonathan Collins is a professor of political science, public policy and education at Brown University. Professor Collins, welcome to the program.

JONATHAN COLLINS: Thank you, Sacha. It's a pleasure to join.

PFEIFFER: How much stock do you think we should be putting in this new data?

COLLINS: Well, I think we should put tremendous stock into any evidence we see of students underperforming or, really, students not reaching their full potential academically. But in terms of just where we place that stock or, I guess, like, where we identify the root causes of any potential lost stock, I think that's where we should be a little bit more discerning and more scrupulous.

PFEIFFER: So you accept that the scores are down - you question why that may be.

COLLINS: Absolutely.

PFEIFFER: Why do you think they're down?

COLLINS: Well, I think a number of reasons. So, you know, the - one of the kind of interesting things that's happening when you look at the assessment is that they also surveyed the students, and they asked them, well, how many of you actually take civics classes or classes that are explicitly dedicated to teaching civics? And a little less than half of the students say that they actually have taken a class - a civics class. And so...

PFEIFFER: So they're being tested on something they're not being taught?

COLLINS: Yeah, exactly. It's like, if I live in New York and I take the train, and you ask me to take a driver's test, how do you think I'll do? So that's true.

PFEIFFER: 'Cause you're never behind the wheel of a car.

COLLINS: Exactly. So that's one issue there.

PFEIFFER: Uh-huh. So why aren't they being taught civics? And if they're not being taught it, why are they being tested it?

COLLINS: Well, that's where we get into a lot of what's happening politically. So the extent to which kids learn civics or the kinds of civics curriculum that they have access to is pretty much a statewide phenomenon. So your state education agency is responsible for developing, implementing and disseminating the kind of civics curriculum that is taught down at the district level, down into the classroom level. And there's been tremendous variation, especially recently, on what those state education agencies are commissioning districts to teach.

PFEIFFER: Do you think the pandemic has anything to do with this?

COLLINS: Absolutely. One of the things that we know has come from the pandemic is the massive learning loss that's been pretty much uniformly impacting kids across regions and across different demographics. But the thing that I think is really important here is that, with this learning loss, you know, we saw a lot of it happening within, like, reading and writing. And so imagine what this means for civics education. So, you know, for instance, it's very difficult to identify the relationship between the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech if there's issues with reading comprehension in terms of understanding the question and knowing the context of the things that are sitting topically at the center of those questions.

PFEIFFER: Since understanding history is so key to making sure our country and our world functions effectively, and since understanding civics is how we understand the basic operation of our country and government, how concerned are you that scores in those particular areas are going down and the future implications of that?

COLLINS: Well, deeply concerned - and not just because I think the understanding of the world is important, but I think there's an additional step there, which is the understanding of the world in order to address the major problems that the world faces. So when we think about whether it's climate change, whether it's growing economic or racial inequality - these big, major, huge social problems that seem to be growing more and more by the day - if students aren't getting a handle on how our political system works, then this impacts their ability to be a part of a structure that's supposed to bring people together to solve these big problems. So I think it's a very concerning thing moving forward.

PFEIFFER: That's Brown University professor Jonathan Collins. Thank you.

COLLINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
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