Education Secretary: It’s ‘Inexcusable’ 85 Percent of 8th Graders Don’t Know Enough About US History

April 23, 2020 Updated: April 23, 2020

Eighth-graders’ scores on U.S. history and geography tests declined from 2014 to 2018 while making no progress in civics, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results released Thursday.

Except for the very top-performing students, scores in U.S. history dropped among nearly all eighth-grade students on the NAEP, commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card. Only about 15 percent of a national sample of 43,000 test-takers in 2018 performed at or above NAEP’s proficient level.

On a 500-point scale, the national average score in U.S. history has now fallen from 267 to 263, which was summed up by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos when she said that “students don’t know what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about.”

Scores also fell in geography, largely due to a downturn in the performance of the lowest-performing students, while middle- and higher-performers managed to maintain their level. In 2018, 25 percent of eighth-graders scored at or above the NAEP’s proficient level. This means about one in four students are able to use information from maps to describe the role a region plays in economy, culture, and politics.

Civics is the only one of the three subjects in which the students’ scores remain flat. In 2018, only about a quarter of eighth-graders reached NAEP proficiency, meaning the rest have trouble understanding and explaining how and why there are checks and balances among legislative, executive, and judicial branches in U.S. government under the Constitution.

“The results are stark and inexcusable,” said Betsy DeVos in a statement. “A quarter or more of America’s 8th graders are what NAEP defines as ‘below basic’ in U.S. history, civics and geography. In the real world, this means students don’t know what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about, nor can they discuss the significance of the Bill of Rights, or point out basic locations on a map. And only 15 percent of them have a reasonable knowledge of U.S. history.”

DeVos urged all Americans to take the opportunity to think about the “concerning implications” for the future of the country, saying, “We need to fundamentally rethink education in America. It is the only way our nation’s students will be in a position to lead our nation and the world.”

“These results are another indication that the achievement of already low performing students has been declining relative to higher-performing students,” said Lynn Woodworth, a commissioner at National Center for Education Statistics, which runs the NAEP. “This pattern raises another important issue for education researchers and policymakers to investigate as American school children are missing a considerable amount of classroom instruction this year, which islikely to have a larger impact on lower-performing students.”