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Indicator I-4 Knowledge of Civics
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Updated (6/25/2010).

See the
Note on the Difference between NAEP "Achievement" and "Performance" Levels.

The NAEP civics examination is designed to gauge students’ proficiency in three areas: civics knowledge, intellectual skills, and civic dispositions. In 2006, 73% of all fourth graders scored at the basic achievement level or above, up a statistically significant 4 percentage points from 1998 (Figure I-4a). As was true of the NAEP assessments in other humanities subjects, lower levels of competency were observed among high schoolers than among younger students. In 2006, for example, only 66% of 12th graders achieved the basic level or above in civics, a percentage that was 7 points lower than for students in the fourth grade.

Figure I-4a, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

There are two possible types of explanation for such a declining rate of achievement. The first of these is a “cohort-based” explanation. This asserts that, in the case of the example given above, students born in the late 1980s are for some reason less receptive to civics instruction than their counterparts born in the mid-1990s. The other type of explanation focuses on “age effects”. An explanation of this kind would assert that something about late adolescence—either the developmental process or high school education in the United States—is less conducive to civics learning. (See the memo from the NAEP governing board describing how the timing of the assessment may be resulting in an underestimation of 12th graders’ competency in civics and other areas.)

As in the case of writing, the data provide some support for the second type of explanation. The spacing of the civics assessments permits a particular cohort of students to be followed over time: the sample of fourth graders who took the exam in 1998 was drawn from the same cohort as the sample of 12th graders who took the exam in 2006. By following the same group of students in this way, we can “control” for cohort effects (i.e., we can reduce the possibility that observed differences between younger and older students’ performance is attributable to differences between the two grade cohorts).

A decline in scores among students of the same cohort is observed as they move through their educational careers. In fourth grade, 31% of sampled students demonstrated less than basic achievement in civics. Upon reaching 12th grade, 34% failed to demonstrate such basic competency. At the same time, a somewhat greater percentage of 12th graders than fourth graders in this cohort scored at the advanced and proficient levels. Thus, the picture is not one of unambiguous decline in civics achievement as students moved through school but of polarization, with students becoming increasingly concentrated at the two ends of the performance spectrum. (For the percentages of students demonstrating particular civics competencies, see an excerpt of the NAEP report, “What students know about civics” (Graphic I-4a).)

Graphic gI-4a, Full Size

(The NAEP Data Explorer permits analysis of these assessment data by gender, ethnicity, and a number of other key variables. For both an overview of Explorer and tips for its effective use, see The Explorer itself is located at

In 1999 the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) conducted an international comparison of 14-year-olds’ civics knowledge. The IEA assessment consisted of two components. The first focused on civics content knowledge (Graphic I-4b), or theoretical knowledge about democratic institutions and practices, such as the purpose of political parties (25 items). The second component examined students’ civics skills (Graphic I-4c); that is, interpretive abilities important in understanding political material, such as the ability to distinguish between facts and opinions or being able to critically read a political cartoon or pamphlet (13 items). The two scores were then averaged, with civics content knowledge scores weighted somewhat more heavily, to produce a total civics knowledge score for each nation.

Graphic gI-4b, Full Size
Graphic gI-4c, Full Size

On the civics skills portion of the exam, the United States outperformed all other OECD nations, as well as the non-OECD nations that participated in the 28-country study. The United States did not score as well on the civics content portion of the test, coming in behind several other OECD countries (Figure I-4b). In terms of its 14-year-olds’ total civics knowledge, the United States ranked fourth, though the difference between its average and that of the three OECD leaders—Poland, Finland, and Greece—was not statistically significant.

Figure I-4b, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

Note on the Difference between NAEP "Achievement" and "Performance" Levels

The figures for Indicators I-1 through I-4 display the percentages of students scoring at certain levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP reading examination is scored differently from the other NAEP examinations (such as those in writing, history, and civics). On the latter exams, students are assessed according to grade-specific achievement scales. A student’s level of achievement is judged to be “basic,” “proficient,” or “advanced” depending on his or her score on the appropriate scale. A child scoring at the “advanced” achievement level on the 12th-grade civics exam is demonstrating different skills than a fourth grader scoring at the “advanced” level.

In contrast, the NAEP reading assessment uses a single scale, referred to as a performance scale, for 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds. What constitutes “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced” performance depends on the age of the examinee. Both a 9-year-old and a 17-year-old may score at Level 250 (able to interrelate ideas and make generalizations). Such a score would constitute an advanced level of performance on the part of the 9-year-old and a basic level of performance on the part of the 17-year-old.

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