Big drop in history and civics scores for American students shows extent of pandemic learning loss

A student, seemingly frustrated with his hands placed on top of his head, looks down at his schoolwork.
Students in the U.S. scored an average of 258 on the history assessment, a 5-point decline from the 2018 results. (Getty Images)

American students are failing to learn basic facts about their own nation’s history or how its government works, according to a closely watched assessment whose results were released on Wednesday.

What you need to know

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, is a nationwide test known as “the Nation’s Report Card” for the sweeping view it provides to educators and policymakers of learning gains — or losses.

The history and civics tests were administered to eighth graders across the country in 2022. Eight thousand children took the test and were graded on a scale from 0 to 300.

On the history assessment, American students scored an average of 258, a 9-point drop from the 2014 test— and a 5-point decline from the 2018 results. Students are now scoring, on average, a point lower than they did when the NAEP history test was first given in 1994.

Only 13% of students showed proficiency in knowledge of American history, a 5-point drop from 2014.

For civics, test scores fell from 150 to 153, the first decline registered by NAEP and a disheartening return to where American students were when the civics assessment began in 1998.

Only 22% of students showed civics proficiency, a worrying reality that could lead to further erosion of trust in democratic institutions.

“Self-government depends on each generation of students leaving school with a complete understanding of the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship,” Peggy G. Carr of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP test, said in a statement on Wednesday. “But far too many of our students are struggling to understand and explain the importance of civic participation, how American government functions, and the historical significance of events. These results are a national concern.”

The big picture

A student at home wearing headphones pays attention during a video conference e-learning session with a teacher and his classmates.
Studies have found that learning loss was sharpest in school districts where remote learning continued the longest. (Getty Images)

Pandemic learning loss appears to be real and, thus far, intractable.

Alarming as they are, Wednesday’s results are hardly a surprise to educators. Last fall, NAEP results on math and reading tests given to 9-year-olds showed steep declines.

Many experts will likely blame remote learning, which continued in some districts even after it became clear that children neither got seriously sick from nor vigorously transmitted the coronavirus.

Studies have found that learning loss was sharpest in districts that stayed remote the longest.

What educators are saying

The Biden administration has argued that it successfully and quickly reopened schools in 2021, but critics say the White House was overly differential to teachers’ unions that were reluctant to bring members back into the classroom.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement that Wednesday’s news “affirms the profound impact the pandemic had on student learning in subjects beyond math and reading.”

But he also warned that proposed congressional cuts to the federal education budget were unproductive, as were efforts in Republican-led states to limit how students were learning history in the name of combating “wokeness” or critical race theory, a graduate-level discipline not taught explicitly in American schools.

“We need to provide every student with rich opportunities to learn about America’s history and understand the U.S. Constitution and how our system of government works,” he said. “Banning history books and censoring educators from teaching these important subjects do our students a disservice and will move America in the wrong direction.”

Dissenting opinions

A teacher and a student in a classroom wearing protective face masks discuss test results.
Some educators have argued that the depth of learning loss due to the pandemic is not as extensive as some assessments suggest. (Getty Images)

Becky Pringle, head of the National Education Association, an influential teachers’ union, has previously downplayed the depth of learning loss from the pandemic, but that argument could become increasingly difficult to maintain.

A potentially more persuasive explanation of Wednesday’s results may be that civics has long been neglected in American public education.

And for all the debate about which, and whose, history should be taught, recent pedagogical trends have favored mastery of skills over memorization of facts, potentially leading to lower test scores.

“You need some basics to understand what’s even verifiable,” Tufts University researcher Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg told the New York Times.

The bottom line

This is bad news.

“We are at a critical point in our country’s history. If you do not understand the complexities and promise of our past, you cannot imagine a better future,” the celebrated documentarian Ken Burns wrote on Twitter. “We either invest in the humanities, including history and civics, or we forfeit our democracy.”