Eighth Grade History Scores on The Decline

As a society, we place a high value on education, believing that it is the key to unlocking a bright future for our children. However, the recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that  eighth graders are falling behind when it comes to history education. The assessment showed that the average history test score dropped by 5 points compared to 2018 and 9 points compared to 2014.

In addition, average scores dropped in all four of the historical subscales of the test. The four historical subsets are defined as follows:

  1. Democracy-Average score decrease of 5 pts. vs. 2018, 9 pts. vs. 2014
  2. Culture- Average score decrease of 5 pts. vs. 2018, 11 pts. vs. 2014
  3. Technology-Average score decrease of 5 pts. vs. 2018, 9 pts. vs. 2014
  4. World Role-Average score decrease of 3 pts. vs. 2018, 7 pts vs. 2014.

Overall, 40% of students tested scored below the NAEP basic level in history. This is up 6 percentage points from 2018 when only 34% of students scored below the basic level. Even more concerning is that only 13% of students scored at a proficient level. That was a one-point drop from 2018.  

The NAEP test results have been stagnant for over a decade, with no significant improvement in scores. The problem is compounded by the fact that history is not a required subject in many states. In some schools, students are only required to take one semester of US history, which is not enough time to cover all the necessary material.

Criticisms from results:

In a May 3, 2023 press release, U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel A. Cardona released the following statement regarding the results:

 “The latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress further affirms the profound impact the pandemic had on student learning in subjects beyond math and reading. It tells us that now is not the time for politicians to try to extract double-digit cuts to education funding, nor is it the time to limit what students learn in U.S. history and civics classes. 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. Banning history books and censoring educators from teaching these important subjects does our students a disservice and will move America in the wrong direction.”

The results, however, show a similar trend to both math and reading score declines during the same timeframe. In addition, some critics believe the decline is a result of a continual de-emphasis on social studies instruction, pointing to the No Child Left Behind policy, which required states to test students in reading, math and periodic testing of science but did not mandate social studies testing. Thus, schools were incentivized to put more emphasis on subjects that are tested.

In a May 3, 2023 US Today news report,  Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) stated, “Fewer students took courses solely focused on U.S. history last school year than in past which may have contributed to the drops.”

Other contributing factors:

In a May 11, 2023 online article published in The Conversation, Diana D’Amico Pawlewicz, Associate Professor of Education Research & Director, I-REEED, University of North Dakota, wrote about four factors that she believes have contributed to the decline.

Pandemic and learning loss: D’Amico Pawlewicz wrote that the pandemic learning loss focus was mainly aimed at math and reading scores thus contributing to an increased emphasis from schools on those core subjects. In addition, she pointed to the NCLB policy of testing math and reading, but not of social studies. D’Amico Pawlewicz said teachers reported that the emphasis on testing took away time and resources for social studies

Politicization of social studies education: D’Amico Pawleicz also pointed to a fear factor that has rippled throughout the education sector due to outspoken politicians weighing in on curriculum and subject matter being taught in schools. She wrote, “Across the country, state legislatures led by conservative politicians have adopted bills banning instruction about aspects of U.S. history that could, they believe, make white children feel “discomfort” or “guilt”.

Education budget cuts: Schools regularly deal with budget constraints, During the pandemic, the lack of funding only amplified both racial and economic disparities among lower-income schools. The test data showed that history score decline from 2018 to 2022 was 42% greater for black students than white students. 

Teacher shortages: It’s no secret that schools across the country are short-staffed. Teacher vacancies for subject matter like social studies continues to rise. The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTC) recently released a press release stating, “Key topics most often absent in program requirements include world history and economics in social studies (required by fewer than 20% of programs), and engineering design in science (required by only 10% of programs), potentially leaving future teachers unprepared to provide their students with the fundamental knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in the modern world.”

Room to improve:

Improving history education requires a multi-faceted approach and focus from both government and states. One of the most important steps to improving history education is to increase funding for the subject. President Joe Biden’s March budget proposal, if passed, would allocate an additional $50 million for U.S. history and civics education, and would challenge states to make their own investments as well. Whether or not the proposal will be modified remains to be seen.

In addition, schools need to focus on adequate teacher training and support. This can be done through professional development opportunities, mentoring programs, and ongoing support from school administrators. Teachers who feel confident and supported in their teaching methods are more likely to engage students and foster a love of learning. This can have a positive impact on learning outcomes and student engagement.

Finally, to improve history education, it’s important to increase the representation of diverse perspectives in history curriculum. Efforts to raise the bar on history scores depend upon less political division and more concerted collaboration between schools, teachers, parents, and the community. The decline in NAEP test scores should sound the alarm that most students are lacking in both knowledge and learning of even the most basic concepts of history education.