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The Next Generation of Citizens:

NAEP Civics Assessments--1988 and 1998

June 2001

Authors: Andrew R. Weiss, Anthony D. Lutkus, Wendy S. Grigg, and Richard G. Niemi


Sepia photograph of a hand with scissors performing a ribbon-cutting ceremony, with an American flag in the backgroundAs we move into the twenty-first century, our nation looks to its youth for confirmation that the government established over 200 years ago will remain relevant, vital, and strong. We expect that today's students are being prepared to understand and maintain the values of our democratic society. Civics education in our nation's schools informs students about the structures, functions, and processes of government and about the meaningful ways in which citizens can make decisions about public issues and participate in governance. This report, based on findings from the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), provides a view of students' achievement in civics over the ten-year period from 1988 to 1998. The data and information provided give some indication as to whether there have been changes in students' understanding of civics and whether civics education has changed during the last decade of the twentieth century.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the nation's only ongoing survey of what students know and can do in various academic subject areas. Authorized by Congress and administered by the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education, NAEP regularly reports to the public on the educational progress of students in grades 4, 8, and 12. In 1998, NAEP conducted two national assessments of students' civics knowledge in each of these grades. One assessment employed a set of new test specifications (or "framework").

The other civics assessment (based on the 1988 civics objectives) was a special study that repeated a number of the multiple-choice test questions used in 1988. The results of the new assessment were reported in the fall of 1999 as the NAEP 1998 Civics Report Card for the Nation.[1] The results of the special study are reported here as a summary of trends in students' knowledge and teachers' classroom practices over the ten-year period.

The results are based on the assessment of a sample of students at each grade that is statistically representative of the entire nation. Students' performance is described in terms of average percentage correct, rather than the traditional NAEP scaled scores. The reason for this departure is that the relatively small set of test questions repeated from 1988 in grades 8 and 12 did not allow comprehensive coverage of the 1988 test objectives, nor did it allow the reliable development of scaled scores parallel to those used in 1988.

This report provides results for subgroups of students defined by various background and contextual characteristics. The analyses focus on differences between 1988 and 1998, rather than differences among groups within each year. To illustrate the civics knowledge that was assessed, numerous samples of the test questions are provided. The report also explores trends in the classroom coverage of civics topics from 1988 to 1998, as well as trends in classroom instructional activities over the decade. A summary of the major findings from the NAEP 1998 special study is presented below.

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Overall Assessment Results

  • In both 1988 and 1998, students at each of the three grade levels answered about two-thirds of the assessment questions correctly.

  • Fourth-grade students in 1998 answered more questions correctly, on average, than did fourth-grade students in 1988.

  • Eighth-grade students in 1998 answered fewer questions correctly, on average, than their counterparts in 1988.

  • The performance of twelfth-grade students in 1998 was not significantly different from their counterparts in 1988.

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Results for Student Subgroups


  • Fourth-grade males had a higher percentage of correct responses in 1998 than in 1988, while twelfth-grade males had a lower percentage correct in 1998.

  • The percentage of correct responses for female students at grades 4, 8, and 12 did not change significantly between 1988 and 1998.


  • In 1998, the percentage of correct responses increased for white students in grade 4 and decreased for Hispanic students in grade 12.

  • At all three grades in both 1988 and 1998, white students consistently achieved a higher percentage correct than either black or Hispanic students.

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Trends in Civics Topics Studied

  • A trend was noted toward less frequent social studies classes in grade 4, with 49 percent of students in 1988 reporting daily classes compared to 39 percent in 1998.

  • The percentage of eighth-graders who reported having studied civics or American government in grades 5, 6, and 7 rose between 1988 and 1998.

  • The percentage of twelfth-graders who said they were studying civics or American government in their current grade rose between 1988 (61 percent) and 1998 (71 percent).

  • Fourth-graders in 1998 reported spending more time studying three of the six civics curriculum topics surveyed (elections and voting, President/leaders of the country, and judges and courts) than did fourth-graders in 1988.

  • For both eighth- and twelfth-graders, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights is the one curriculum topic, of all those surveyed, that was studied "A lot" by the majority of students in both 1988 and 1998.

  • The amount of time spent studying the various civics topics surveyed at grades 8 and 12 is similar and has not changed between 1988 and 1998.
Sepia photograph of the bases of massive pillars, at the entrance to a federal building

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Trends in Contexts for Learning Civics

  • The frequency with which students at grades 8 and 12 were assigned extra reading material by their civics or American government teachers increased between 1988 and 1998.

  • The percentage of eighth- and twelfth-graders assigned to work on group projects at least once or twice a week rose substantially from 1988 to 1998.

  • The percentage of fourth-graders discussing current events in social studies class at least once a week increased from 29 percent in 1988 to 39 percent in 1998.

  • The amount of civics homework twelfth-graders were doing did not change significantly between 1988 and 1998.

  • Between 1988 and 1998, the percentage of eighth-graders whose families regularly got a newspaper fell from 77 percent to 71 percent. For twelfth-graders, the percentage dropped from 82 percent to 75 percent.
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  1. Lutkus, A.D., Weiss, A.R., Campbell, J.R., Mazzeo, J., & Lazer, S. (1999). NAEP 1998 civics report card for the nation. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

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NCES 2001-452 Ordering information

Suggested Citation
U.S. Department of Education. Office of Educational Research and Improvement. National Center for Education Statistics. The Next Generation of Citizens: NAEP Civics Assessments--1988 and 1998, NCES 2001-452, by A.R. Weiss, A.D. Lutkus, W.S. Grigg, and R.G. Niemi. Washington, DC: 2001.

Last updated 19 July 2001 (PO'R)

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