Peggy G. Carr, Ph.D.
Acting Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics
The Nation's Report Card: 2014 U.S. History, Geography, and Civics at Grade 8
April 29, 2015
Today I am releasing the results of the 2014 U.S. history, geography, and civics assessments of eighth-graders from the National Assessment of Educational Progress—The Nation's Report Card.
The NAEP social science assessments help us measure students' understanding of the origins and evolution of the nation; their ability to seek and systematically apply the knowledge and skills of geography in life situations; and their understanding of American government and the workings of a civil society.
The last time NAEP assessed students in these three subjects was 2010. For the first time these results and more are available in an online interactive report.
About the Assessments
The U.S. history, geography, and civics assessments were administered nationally between January and March 2014. The assessments measured the knowledge of 11,200 eighth-graders in U.S. history; 9,000 eighth-graders in geography; and 9,100 eighth-graders in civics. Each student was assessed in only one subject.
Student performance is presented in two ways—as average scale scores and as the percentages of students at the various achievement levels, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. Overall results are based on the performance of both public and private school students.
The NAEP achievement levels are set by the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP and oversees the development of the assessment frameworks. NAEP scale scores tell us what students know and can do, while the NAEP achievement levels provide standards for what students should know and be able to do at various levels of performance.
For both scale scores and achievement-level performance, comparisons are made to the most recent assessment (2010) and the initial assessment. The first assessment year was 1994 for U.S. history and geography, and 1998 for civics. During this time, it should be noted, there has been a shift in the demographic composition of the student population—from 1994 to 2014, the percentage of Hispanic students increased from 8% to 25%, while the percentage of White students decreased from 72% to 49%.
When making these comparisons, we must remember that all NAEP results are based on samples from the overall population of students. This means that there is a margin of error associated with every score and percent. When discussing changes in student performance—either increases or decreases—we only discuss those that are statistically significant—those that are larger than the margin of error. Testing accommodations for students with disabilities and English language learners were made available for the Civics assessment in 1998 and U.S. History and Geography assessments in 2001.
Overall, there have been no significant changes in students' average scores in U.S. history, geography, or civics since 2010. In 2014, 18 percent of students performed at or above Proficient in U.S. history, 27 percent performed at or above Proficient in geography, and 23 percent in civics. Next I will discuss results for each subject in greater depth.
U.S. History Results
The NAEP U.S. History assessment measures how well students know American history, how well they evaluate historical evidence, and how well they understand change in our democracy. The U.S. History framework identifies four major themes in American history. The framework also designates the distribution of the item pool by theme and the distribution by historical time period. We report student performance overall and on each theme separately. I will discuss the themes and those results shortly.
Grade 8 students had an average score of 267 on a 500-point scale in 2014, which was not significantly different from their score of 266 in 2010 but is higher than their average score of 259 in 1994.
In addition to reporting average scale scores for each assessment, scores are reported at five percentiles to show trends in results for students performing at lower (the 10th and 25th percentiles), middle (the 50th percentile), and higher levels (the 75th and 90th percentiles). At all five percentiles, students' scores were higher in 2014 than in 1994, but not significantly different from 2010. So, there was improvement across the range of performance since the first assessment year.
There were no changes in the percentage of students performing at each achievement level from 2010 to 2014. But there were changes from 1994—the percentage of students performing at or above Proficient increased from 14 percent in 1994 to 18 percent in 2014. The percentage of students performing below Basic decreased from 39 percent in 1994 to 29 percent in 2014, while the percentage of students performing at Basic increased from 48 to 53 percent in the same period. These changes, together with the score increases at the lower percentiles, indicate that the bottom of the distribution is coming up over time.
Although there was no overall score change since 2010, scores for both White and Hispanic students did increase since 2010. When we compare current results to the initial assessment results in 1994, we see increases for all student groups except private school students.
Scores for both male and female students increased since 1994 as well, but scores for neither group changed since 2010. A gap between male and female students appeared in 2006 and has persisted, since male students' scores have increased more than those for female students. In 2014, the gap between male and female students was 4 points.
Since 1994, scores for public school students increased by 9 points while scores for private school students were unchanged. However, neither public nor private school students' scores changed since 2010.
As I mentioned earlier, the NAEP U.S. History Framework identifies four major themes in American history and how much assessment time is designated per theme. The first theme is Change and Continuity in American Democracy, which focuses on the development of American political democracy from colonial times to the present; 30 percent of the assessment is given to this theme. The second theme is Culture—the Gathering and Interactions of Peoples, Cultures, and Ideas in the United States, which takes 30 percent of the assessment time. The third theme is Technology—Economic and Technological Changes and Their Relationship to Society, Ideas, and the Environment, 20 percent. The last theme is World Role— which focuses on the changing ideas, institutions, and ideologies that affect American foreign relations, 20%.
Although there was no overall score change in U.S. history since 2010, there was an increase in performance in the Democracy theme. Since 1994, there were increases in three of the four themes—Democracy, Culture, and World Role.
The 2014 geography assessment measures students' geography knowledge and skills, and is organized around content areas that describe specific geography subject matter and cognitive areas that reflect different levels of understanding geography. The NAEP Geography framework requires that the assessment include key physical science and social science aspects of geography. Furthermore, the framework details three content areas and how much assessment time is allocated to each content area: 1) Space and Place includes knowledge related to particular places on Earth, spatial patterns on the Earth's surface, and physical and human processes that shape such patterns (40 percent); 2) Environment and Society which explores knowledge related to the interactions between the environment and society, and how people adapt to, depend on, are affected by, and modify, the natural environment (30 percent); and 3) Spatial Dynamics and Connections, which deals with knowledge related to spatial variations and connections among people and places (30 percent). In addition to the overall score, NAEP reports average scores for these three content areas.
Eighth-grade students had an average geography score of 261 on a 500-point scale in 2014, which was not different from the average score in 2010 or from the first assessment year, 1994. But, we will see when we look behind these average scores that there have been improvements.
Student performance increased at the 10th and at the 25th percentiles in 2014 compared to 1994. Students performing at the other percentiles showed no differences in their average scores since 1994. Average scores did not change for any percentile group since 2010.
There were no significant changes by geography content area compared to 2010, but there was an increase in Space and Place since the first assessment year and more specifically there were improvements in the geography content areas for some student groups. Since 2010, for example, scores for Hispanic students increased in Space and Place, and in Spatial Dynamics and Connections.
The percentage of students performing at or above Proficient in 2014 has not changed since 1994 or 2010 in geography. The percentage of students performing below Basic, however, decreased since 1994 while the percentage of students performing at Basic increased over the same period indicating that the scores near the bottom of the distribution are increasing.
Although overall scores have not changed, looking at scores and score changes by race/ethnicity we see increases since 1994 for White, Black, and Hispanic students. In addition, the score for Hispanic students increased since 2010. The score gap between White and Hispanic students was narrower in 2014 compared to the gap in 1994. There were no score changes by gender or by type of school, however, for either year.
Finally, we will look at the results of the 2014 NAEP Civics assessment. This assessment asks students to demonstrate knowledge of the American constitutional system and of the workings of our civil society. It also requires them to demonstrate a range of intellectual skills—identifying and describing important information, explaining and analyzing it, and evaluating information and defending positions with appropriate evidence and careful reasoning. The five major categories of knowledge and the percentage of assessment time designated by the framework are as follows: define civic life, politics, and government (15 percent), the foundations of the American political system (25 percent), government embodiment of American democracy (25 percent), U.S. relationship to other nations (15 percent), and roles of citizens in American democracy (20 percent). Unlike U.S. history and geography, civics results are not reported for these individual categories of knowledge. Overall civics scores are reported on a 0 to 300 point scale.
Grade 8 students had an average score of 154 in 2014, which was not significantly different from their score of 151 in 2010 but it was an increase from 150 in the first assessment year, 1998.
By percentile, we see increases in average scores in 2014 among students at the 10th, 25th, and 50th percentiles, compared to 1998. Average scores did not change for any percentile group since 2010.
The percentage of students performing at or above Proficient in civics in 2014 has not changed since 1998 or 2010. But, the percentage of students performing below Basic decreased since 1998, while the percentage of students performing at Basic increased over the same period. This pattern is similar to the one we noticed in both U.S. history and geography—scores at the lower end of the distribution have increased since the first assessment year.
By race/ethnicity, we see increases in average scores since 1998 for White and Hispanic students. In addition, the score for White students increased since 2010. In 2014 there was no significant difference in the scores of male and female students. This is a change from 1998 when female students scored higher. Male students' scores have increased over this period while female students' scores have not. So, the score gap that existed in 1998 is no longer present in 2014. Scores for public school students increased since 1998, but did not change since 2010.
Summary for U.S. History, Geography and Civics
In summary, it is important to emphasize that the lack of score change overall from the previous assessment is not the complete story. For example, performance of White students improved in both U.S. history and civics since the previous assessment. Performance of Hispanic students improved in both U.S. history and geography from the last assessment. So, the gains by these two groups are masked if one just focuses on the overall changes.
Another finding was the bottom of the performance distribution improving when compared to the first assessment year—1994 for U.S. history and geography and 1998 for civics. We observe this change when looking at how the distribution of students across the achievement levels has shifted. The percentage of students at or above Basic has increased while the proportion of the population below Basic has decreased.
The last thing I would like to discuss is a summary of several contextual questions we ask students to complete as part of the NAEP assessment. Analyzing these items allows NAEP to make connections between learning contexts and assessment performance. As an example, students responded to questions about the different types of study materials they used to learn about U.S. history. The percentage of students who reported reading materials from a textbook at least weekly decreased from 73 percent in 2010 to 64 percent in 2014. This decrease corresponded with an increase in the percentage of students who reported using technology-based materials at least weekly when studying U.S. history. Technology-based materials included things like watching movies/videos, using computers at school, and listening to information online. Another category —using letters, diaries, or essays written by historical people—is included because the use of technology facilitates access to these primary sources.
In conclusion, as always, I would like to offer our sincere thanks to the students, teachers, and schools who participated in the 2014 U.S. history, geography, and civics assessments. All of the results I discussed today plus other results that we did not have time to talk about are available in the online interactive report (The Nation's Report Card: Results of the 2014 NAEP U.S. History, Geography, and Civics Assessments). The web report also includes sample questions from each subject assessment; additional released NAEP questions are available through the NAEP Questions tool https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/about/naeptools.aspx).