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Interpreting NAEP Civics Results

Overview of the Assessment
Reporting the Assessment—Scale Scores and Achievement Levels
Description of Civics Performance by Item Maps for Each Grade
Results Are Estimates
NAEP Reporting Groups
Exclusion Rates
Statistical Significance
Cautions in Interpretations

Overview of the Assessment

NAEP assesses student performance in civics by administering assessments to samples that are representative of the nation's students. The content of the NAEP civics assessment is determined by a framework developed with the help of researchers, policymakers, and the interested public, including those with expert perspectives about civics and its measurement. Read more about what the assessment measures, how it was developed, who took the assessment, and how the assessment was administered.

The 2010 civics results presented on the website are based on representative samples of students for the nation. Approximately 26,700 students from more than 1,470 schools participated in the NAEP civics assessments in 2010 at grades 4, 8, and 12. The national results reflect the performance of students attending both public and nonpublic schools. Results from 2010 are compared to results from the previous civics assessments administered in 1998 and 2006. Changes in student performance across years or differences between groups of students in 2010 are discussed only if they have been determined to be statistically significant.

Reporting the Assessment—Scale Scores and Achievement Levels

The results of student performance on the NAEP civics assessment are presented as average scores on the NAEP civics scale, as the percentages of students attaining NAEP civics achievement levels, and as percentile scores. The average scale scores represent how students performed on the assessment. The achievement levels represent how that performance measured up against set expectations for achievement. Thus, the average scale scores represent what students know and can do, while the achievement-level results indicate the degree to which student performance meets expectations of what they should know and be able to do. Percentile scores provide a score location below which a specified percentage of the population falls. Scale scores are reported at five percentiles to show trends in results for students performing at lower (10th and 25th), middle (50th), and higher (75th and 90th) percentiles. 

Average civics scale score results are based on the NAEP civics scale, which ranges from 0 to 300. Average scale scores are computed for groups of students; NAEP does not produce individual student scores. The average scores are based on analyses of the percentages of students who answered each item successfully. While the score ranges at each grade in civics are identical, the scale was derived independently at each grade. Therefore, average scale scores across grades cannot be compared. For example, equal scale scores on the grade 4 and grade 8 scales do not imply equal levels of civics achievement. NAEP scores also cannot be compared across subjects.

Achievement-level results are presented in terms of civics achievement levels adopted by the National Assessment Governing Board, and are intended to measure how well students' actual achievement matches the achievement desired of them. For each grade tested, the Governing Board has adopted three achievement levels: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. For reporting purposes, the achievement-level cut scores are placed on the civics scales, resulting in four ranges: below Basic, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. As provided by law, the achievement levels are to be used on a trial basis and should be interpreted and used with caution.

Description of Civics Performance by Item Maps for Each Grade

Item maps illustrate the knowledge and skills demonstrated by students performing at different scale points on the 2010 NAEP civics assessment. In order to provide additional context, the cut points for the three NAEP achievement levels are marked on the item maps. The map location for each question represents the probability that, for a given score point, 65 percent of the students for a constructed-response question and 74 percent of the students for a four-option multiple-choice question answered that question successfully. For constructed-response questions, responses may be completely or partially correct; therefore, a question can map to several points on a scale.

Approximately 20 to 30 civics questions per grade have been selected and placed on an item map for each grade.

Results Are Estimates

The average scores and percentages presented on this website are estimates because they are based on representative samples of students rather than on the entire population of students. Moreover, the collection of subject-area questions used at each grade level is but a sample of the many questions that could have been asked. As such, NAEP results are subject to a measure of uncertainty, reflected in the standard error of the estimates. The standard errors for the estimated scale scores and percentages in the figures and tables presented on the website are available through the NAEP Data Explorer.


NAEP Reporting Groups

Results are provided for groups of students defined by shared characteristics—gender, race/ethnicity, eligibility for free/reduced-price school lunch, students with disabilities, and students identified as English language learners. Based on participation rate criteria, results are reported for various student populations only when sufficient numbers of students and adequate school representation are present. The minimum requirement is at least 62 students in a particular group from at least five primary sampling units (PSUs). However, the data for all students, regardless of whether their group was reported separately, were included in computing overall results. Explanations of the reporting groups are presented below.


Results are reported separately for males and females.


In all NAEP assessments, data about student race/ethnicity is collected from two sources: school records and student self-reports. Before 2002, NAEP used students' self-reports of their race and ethnicity on a questionnaire as the source of race/ethnicity data. In 2002, it was decided to change the student race/ethnicity variable highlighted in NAEP reports. Starting in 2002, NAEP reports of students' race and ethnicity are based on the school records, with students' self-reports used only if school data are missing. Information based on student self-reported race/ethnicity will continue to be reported in the NAEP Data Explorer.

In order to allow comparisons across years, assessment results presented are based on school-reported information for six mutually exclusive racial/ethnic categories: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian (including Alaska Native), and Other. Students who identified with more than one of the first five categories or had a background other than the ones listed were categorized as Other.

Eligibility for National School Lunch Program

As part of the Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program (NSLP), schools can receive cash subsidies and donated commodities in turn for offering free or reduced-price lunches to eligible children. Based on available school records, students were classified as either currently eligible for the free/reduced-price school lunch or not eligible. Eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches is determined by students' family income in relation to the federally established poverty level. Students whose family income is at or below 130 percent of the poverty level qualify to receive free lunch, and students whose family income is between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level qualify to receive reduced-price lunch. For the period July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2010, for a family of four, 130 percent of the poverty level was $28,665 and 185 percent was $40,793. The classification applies only to the school year when the assessment was administered (i.e., the 2009–10 school year) and is not based on eligibility in previous years. If school records were not available, the student was classified as "Information not available." If the school did not participate in the program, all students in that school were classified as "not participating." If a school refused to provide information on free/reduced-price lunch eligibility, the students in that school were classified under "school refused." Because of the improved quality of the data on students' eligibility for NSLP, the percentage of students for whom information was not available has decreased compared to the percentages reported prior to the 2006 civics assessment. See the proportion of students in each category in the NAEP Data Explorer.

Students with Disabilities (SD)

Results are reported for students who were identified by school records as having a disability. A student with a disability may need specially designed instruction to meet his or her learning goals. A student with a disability will usually have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) which guides his or her special education instruction. Students with disabilities (SD) are often referred to as special education students and may be classified by their school as learning disabled (LD) or emotionally disturbed (ED). The goal of NAEP is that students who are capable of participating meaningfully in the assessment are assessed, but some students with disabilities selected by NAEP may not be able to participate, even with the accommodations provided. Beginning in 2009, NAEP disaggregated students with disabilities and students who were identified under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

English Language Learners (ELL)

Results are reported for students who were identified by school records as being English language learners. (Note that English language learners were previously referred to as limited English proficient [LEP].)

Type of School

The national results are based on a representative sample of students in both public schools and nonpublic schools. Nonpublic schools include private schools, Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, and Department of Defense schools. Private schools include Catholic, Conservative Christian, Lutheran, and other private schools. Results are reported for private schools overall and are disaggregated by Catholic and other private schools; however, in 2010 results for private schools are only reported at grade 8 due to low participation rates at grades 4 and 12.  

Parental Education

Parents' highest level of education is defined by the highest level reported by eighth-graders and twelfth-graders for either parent. Fourth-graders' replies to this question were not reported because their responses in previous studies were highly variable, and a large percentage of them chose the "I don't know" option. The two questions about the mother's and father's education level was revised between the 1998 and 2006 civics assessment administrations; therefore, trend data can only be reported for this variable for the 2006 and 2010 assessments. 


Exclusion Rates

NAEP has established policies and procedures to maximize the inclusion of all students in the assessment. Every effort is made to ensure that all selected students who are capable of participating meaningfully in the assessment are assessed. While some students with disabilities (SD) and/or English language learners (ELL) can be assessed without any special procedures, others require accommodations to participate in NAEP. Still other SD and/or ELL students selected by NAEP may not be able to participate. Local school authorities determine whether SD/ELL students require accommodations or should be excluded because they cannot be assessed. The percentage of SD and/or ELL students who are excluded from NAEP assessments varies from one jurisdiction to another and within a jurisdiction over time.

See additional information about the percentages of special-needs students

See the types of accommodations permitted for students with disabilities and/or English language learners at the national and state levels.

Statistical Significance

Differences between scale scores and between percentages that are discussed in the results take into account the standard errors associated with the estimates. Comparisons are based on statistical tests that consider both the magnitude of the difference between the group average scores or percentages and the standard errors of those statistics. Throughout the results, differences between scores or between percentages are discussed only when they are significant from a statistical perspective.

All differences reported are significant at the 0.05 level with appropriate adjustments for multiple comparisons. In NAEP, the Benjamini-Hochberg False Discovery Rate (FDR) procedure is used to control the expected proportion of falsely rejected hypotheses relative to the number of comparisons that are conducted. The term "significant" is not intended to imply a judgment about the absolute magnitude or the educational relevance of the differences. It is intended to identify statistically dependable population differences to help inform dialogue among policymakers, educators, and the public.

Cautions in Interpretations

Users of this website are cautioned against interpreting NAEP results as implying causal relations. Inferences related to student group performance or to the effectiveness of public and nonpublic schools, for example, should take into consideration the many socioeconomic and educational factors that may also have an impact on performance.

The NAEP civics scale makes it possible to examine relationships between students' performance and various factors measured by NAEP. However, a relationship that exists between achievement and another variable does not reveal its underlying cause, which may be influenced by a number of other variables. Similarly, the assessments do not reflect the influence of unmeasured variables. The results are most useful when they are considered in combination with other knowledge about the student population and the educational system, such as trends in instruction, changes in the school-age population, and societal demands and expectations.


See more civics subject information.

Last updated 03 August 2012 (NB)
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